EIFF2015 Review – Roar (1981)

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The cult classic label gets chucked about too easily these days – but one such film deserving of the title is first time director/actor/writer Noel Marshall‘s 1981 big cat flick, Roar. Filmed with almost exclusively Marshall’s own family – wife Tippi Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffith, and sons John and Jerry – Roar resulted in seventy cast and crew injuries thanks to the 150 untrained big cats that it features.

Marshall’s screenplay sees him play Hank, a man living at peace with wild animals (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs and elephants) in Africa. One day sees his family come to visit him – the trouble is, he’s not at home and Hank’s multitude of wildcats turn on them.

The trouble with making a film about untrained big cats is that they don’t give a damn about your screenplay and are simply going to do as they please – whether that’s pounce on you, chase you, bite you, scratch you, or in the case of the nicer ones, maybe lick you. So plot structure takes a backseat here as we marvel in the majesty and ferocity of these beautiful beasts. Despite this, Marshall manages to cobble up a pretty succinct narrative around these scenes of animal instincts – particularly as Roar turns wildlife home invasion thriller.

The early scenes which see Hank visited by those who object to his lifestyle are particularly shocking and tense, as we see tigers climb on boats, people attacked, and hunters chased all by the untrained stars of the film. The manic chaos continues as Hedren, Griffith and co.’s characters arrive at the house to find it’s overrun by Hank’s beloved beasts. What follows is numerous scenes where the family are pursued through the wooded-decor ranch house and forced to hide in all manner of places to avoid the big cats. Marshall gets remarkably close to the action and captures it with a surprising professionalism despite the real life dangers on set. The cast are equally convincing, given the genuine terror that they are clearly experiencing as these ferocious animals scratch, chase and maul them. The cast aren’t so much as acting, but trying to survive another day on set.

There’s an obscure style and tone to Roar, something that furthers its cult qualities. This is seen in the odd humour in Marshall’s style which mostly consists of Hank normalising his living conditions, seeing nothing odd about the ranch house packed to the rafters with vicious felines. There’s further humour found in Marshall’s dynamic with African colleague Mativo (Kyalo Mativo) – who can’t even try to hide his genuine terror at these filming conditions.

Marshall and cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would later go on to make nineties classics Speed and Twister) capture a real beauty in the African landscapes – highlighted in an opening motorbike ride through the plains as Marshall weaves through running giraffes and zebras. There’s also an incredible soundtrack from Terence Minogue filled with African pop like Robert Florczak‘s “Nchi Ya Nani? (Whose Land Is This)”.

The result of all this: Roar is a cinematic experience like no other. As a vanity piece for a first-time director, the ambition and real life danger of Roar is staggering. This is a film that thrills throughout, leaving audiences filled with awe – whilst dazzling with a visual clout, humour, and a unique soundtrack. Roar is a cult masterpiece.

Andrew McArthur

Adventure | USA, 1981 | PG | 2015 Edinburgh Film Festival | 25th June 2015 | Dir.Noel Marshall | Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith