Roar Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Hank (Noel Marshall) is a doctor and an outspoken naturalist in Africa who allows lions, tigers, cheetahs, and other big cats to roam freely around his remote estate. While away protecting animals from poachers, Hank’s family arrive at his home and are stalked by the massive lions that have overrun the house. (From Olive’s official synopsis)
Noel Marshall’s Roar (1981) was intended to be a fictional thriller about a family that is attacked by the giant African cats they let into their home. But the shockingly similar behind-the-scenes story, about Marshall’s actual family being attacked by the giant African that cats he let onto his set, has overshadowed any cinematic value the film has to offer. The fact that the finished product was barely screened when released and had been practically lost (outside of hard to find European DVD editions) only expanded the notion that Roar wasn’t a movie, but a harrowing production tale disguised as a home movie and made as a back-story for star Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve (a sanctuary established to house the wild animals that have been foolishly imported/bred to keep as pets). Many of us actually came to know the film while watching a Biography Channel special about Hedren. Instead of delving into the dirty secrets of her contentious relationship with Alfred Hitchcock, we were instead treated to a different kind of horror story – one that landed over 70 cast and crew members, including Hedren’s own daughter (Melanie Griffith), in the hospital.
Roar is every bit as disjointed, unfocused, and tonally scattershot as you’d expect from a movie that took eleven very difficult years to make (in fairness, some of those years were spent raising the cats from babies, so that they would be more docile). The already thin story is shredded by abrupt cuts and several minutes of forced improvisation between set-pieces. Every attempt at narrative structure is undone by an army of impatient animals and inappropriate jokes awkwardly sprout from the middle of harrowing set-pieces, as if any attempt at levity could override the real-life peril. In other words, this is a proper exploitation film, complete with a unique hook – the director coaxed his loved ones into life-threatening situations with a myriad of exotic man-eating cats. The behind-the-scenes stories paint Marshall as much of an utter madman and his onscreen counterpart – with his wild hair, flailing arms, sincere discussions with wild animals, and an occasional lack of pants – matches every expectation. At a certain point, you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the unsafe filming situations. Particularly fascinating is the lack of coherent moral messaging. I have no idea what Marshall was trying to convey. Given Hedren’s history with Shambala, I had assumed that there would be some kind of blatant conservation theme, but, despite an easily-ignored subplot about a vaguely-defined villain hell-bent on killing Hank’s animals, there’s little indication that these creatures (including a particularly pissy elephant) are anything more than a perpetual and concentrated threat. That is, until the gloriously tone-deaf, eleventh-hour happy ending.
A note on the film’s running time: Imdb.com and Wikipedia both claim that Roar runs 102 minutes, yet this Blu-ray release (and its theatrical counterpart) totals only 95 minutes (specifically 94:16, including the Olive and Drafthouse logos). Brief research tells me that NTSC VHS releases ran 97 minutes, but I can’t find any indication of multiple cuts. My best assumption I can make is that Roar premiered at 102 minutes, then was trimmed for distribution, which isn’t at all unusual for the era.
Roar was rescued from obscurity by Austin-based Drafthouse Films, who, in conjunction with Olive Films, digitally mastered it for theatrical and HD home video distribution. Either that or both companies have reused the “HD Remastered” Platinum Cult Blu-ray from Digi-Dreams Studios in Germany (the release date for that one is listed as June 2014). I can’t find any specific information on what exactly went into the restoration, but, given the artifacts seen on this 2.35:1 (perhaps closer to 2.30:1?), 1080p transfer, I imagine there was a lot of digital cleanup. The good news is that it doesn’t look like a movie that spent nearly 35 years in an Italian closet, gathering dust (note: I just made this up and have no idea what condition the footage was in or where it was found). There is very little notable print damage, aside from inconsistent gamma levels, which can fluctuate between camera angles within the same sequence. This leads me to believe material was culled from multiple sources. Unfortunately, the cleanup efforts are overdone and the prevalent DNR scrubs out a whole lot of natural texture. In place of film grain, we get either clumpy noise-caked wide-shots or overly smoothed close-ups/medium shots. These distracting artifacts are magnified by flattened background texture, motion blur, and edge halos. Assuming the damage to the material was extensive, I would’ve greatly preferred a dirty, untouched ‘grindhouse’ look to something so scoured and over-polished. Obviously, this release is better than no release and future Hollywood cinematographic superstar/director Jan de Bont’s photography is strong enough to overcome many of the not-so-great mastering choices. The color quality is pretty vivid and striking, despite appearing a bit more amber-tinged than I expected (based on the clips I’d seen years ago).
Roar’s original stereo soundtrack is presented here in uncompressed, 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The audio is just as patchy as the video, often due to the composite quality of the footage being used. The majority of the track is pretty clean, but there are a number of muffled sequences, loads of ADR dialogue, and a basic lack of consistency in terms of clarity and volume. Sometimes, sound drops out, due to what I assume are issues with missing footage and I’m more than willing to forgive the discrepancy, because, again, I imagine the materials were in dire condition. Terrence P. Minogue’s music is often lost in the bustle of growling lions and shouting cast. There are moments that I didn’t realize there was underscore at all until I realized that what I thought was sound effects was actually score. Robert Hawk Florczak’s pop/folk tunes fare better and were likely borrowed from a different source.
Most Olive releases are barebones, but Drafthouse’s participation has ensured that this Blu-ray comes loaded with a nice collection of supplements, including:
Commentary with camera operator/actor/son of the director John Marshall and Drafthouse Film’s CEO Tim League – I expected a relatively amusing tone from this track, given League’s enthusiastic writings on the film (these have been reproduced on this disc’s extras), but it’s a pretty serious endeavor. with League grilling Marshall for behind-the-scenes information, including lots of nice anecdotes about the family. Marshall actually does a decent job of diffusing some of the shock and insanity by pointing out instances of fake blood and staged injuries, while also tip-toeing around some of the ethical issues (not just putting people in danger, but skipping paychecks, et cetera). Still, it’s impossible for this particular production story not to be a little amusing, especially when Marshall breaks down some of the brutal injuries audiences might have missed or when he eventually admits that ‘in hindsight, this movie shouldn’t have been made.’
The Making of Roar (33:20, SD) – This is the same vintage featurette that I hunted down years ago (copyright 2004). I believe it was made specifically for the film’s newish website and is put together sort of like an infomercial. It includes a nice rundown of all the horrible stuff that happened on set. There’s not a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, but there are some photos and interviews with Hedren, John & Jerry Hedren, surviving crew members, and Shambala Reserve staff. Marshall appears briefly at the end.
Q&A with cast & crew (39:50, HD) – This post-screening interview with John Marshall was recorded at The Cinefamily in Los Angeles in April 2015. It was conducted by Cinefamily’s Hadrian Belove and Drafthouse’s Christian Parkes.
The Grandeur of Roar – A text-based essay by League
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.