There’s just too many movies. In the U.S. alone, every year seems to bring with it a new record broken for theatrical releases. If we’re in the midst of a golden age of anything, it would appear to be endless choices. In this age of cinematic oversaturation where even The New York Times has finally taken a stand to not review every film given a theatrical release in the U.S., is there even room for dormant quasi-cult films to reach any kind of audience? Drafthouse Films seems to think so.
The independent distributor has released Oscar nominated films like “Bullhead” and “The Act of Killing,” but not enough attention is given to the other kind of new release they specialize in: unearthing strange, seemingly lost older movies and giving them a new lease on life through limited theatrical runs and eventual VOD and Blu-ray releases. In their catalog (so far) you can find “Wake in Fright,” “Miami Connection,” “The Visitor” and “Ms. 45.” The latest, “Roar,” has been playing theatrically in select cities since April and continuing this summer until an eventual VOD/Blu-Ray release. While I’m not going to declare it the next “Holy Fucking Shit masterpiece,” as Drafthouse CEO and Founder Tim League stated, it is easily one of the weirdest and wildest things I’ve come across in a while, and that’s its own kind of cultural currency in this ever-crowded cinematic realm.
The story goes that Tippi Hedren (“The Birds”) and husband/manager Noel Marshall (an executive producer on “The Exorcist“) were shooting in Africa when they became impassioned animal rights activists, deciding (as one does) to raise more than 100 lions, jaguars and tigers and various other animals in a home with their kids. To raise awareness of overhunting and cruel animal treatment while in captivity, (naturally) they decided a film must be made, but about what exactly? (That question still prevails having seen it.) It took 11 years to come to fruition, with the actual production taking more than five. The slow filmmaking pace had everything to do with the animals (credited as writers and directors in the opening, for good reason), as they did whatever they felt like doing on set (aka the Marshall/Hedren California ranch), including 70 documented bloody attacks and countless injuries to the actors. Not one animal, hard as it is to believe after seeing the film, was injured though. By all accounts, the production was a disaster of “Apocalypse Now” proportions, but so was the box office when it came out in 1981. So it fell into obscurity, until recently.
There’s inherently a lot of fascinating and weird history to an all but lost piece of cinema like “Roar,” and while that’s fun to dig into—wondering, how the hell was this ever made?—when it comes to actually sitting down and watching it, things get murkier. First off, it’s not much of a film, per se, but more a collection of nature photography, stunts and animal attacks, held together with the barest and most bizarre elements (misplaced hippie-like idealism, gruesome violence and ‘Gods Must Be Crazy’ type slapstick). Marshall plays Hank, a wildlife preservationist who prefers living amongst a host of varied animals in and around his home to being with his family. He’s visited by his wife and kids (played by Hedren and their actual children, including Melanie Griffith) early in the film, and things pretty much instantly spiral out of control from there as he tries to rescue them and also keep the animals protected from nasty hunters.
The camera work by DP Jan de Bont (yes, the director of “Speed” and “Twister” shot this film, and received 220 stitches on his head after being scalped by a lion) is a strength for the film, and remarkable for the risks involved in capturing this footage. There’s a simple, tactile beauty to the images—an early montage of Marshall riding his motorcycle alongside birds and giraffes, captured with a long lens, for instance—with a strong nature doc vibe that slams jarringly against the atonal storytelling. Even the insane/at-times-beautiful visuals can’t save this from being just a cultish curio, and not a truly brilliant rediscovery (i.e. “Wake In Fright” and “Ms. 45”). Staging and blocking must’ve been a nightmare during production, because it’s almost nonsensical how some characters get from one place to another in certain sequences. “Roar” is schizophrenic as all hell, leaping from kooky and lighthearted to frighteningly intense, sometimes in a single edit. It’s certainly never boring, but it can be a little sluggish at times as things vacillate between these varied and unconnected tones. The slapdash quality of the film is unique and almost charming, though, considering the production realities. There’s little doubt that it would be best imbibed in a crowded theater with like-minded folks looking for a good time, ready to howl at its random goofiness and batshit insanity.
While a lot of the common attributes of straight-up bad movies are prevalent in “Roar,” it has something even most good movies are lacking: it shows us things we’ve never seen. That can go a long way in making something worth watching, and to that end, I agree wholeheartedly. It’s also often very funny, with even the rough acting adding to the atmosphere (after all, who needs comic timing when a pride of lions is hovering around the actors? The truth and humor comes through in the actual fear on their faces). “Roar” is a gonzo piece of animal rights activist buffoonery, a nature revenge exploitation piece that even moonlights as one of those pseudo “Jaws” knockoffs still popular at the time (i.e. “Day of the Animals,” “Alligator,” “Grizzly” et al) but then falls back on a half-assed, completely out of left field happy ending, where it morphs into some kind of let’s-all-live-together-with-the-animals piece of agitprop. If Marshall and Hedren intended this as a way to better understand animals and thus be less afraid of them, then they completely missed the mark. Whether you find that hilarious or just plain sad is up to you, but there almost certainly will never be anything like “Roar” again, and that’s reason enough to check it out. [B-]