Noel Marshall
Stars: Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Like “Heaven’s Gate,” “Roar” was a disastrous, star-studded production that nearly destroyed its makers financially. It even made nearly the same pittance during its tragic box office run. But 1981’s “Roar” was perhaps the craziest of the two; no one nearly died making “Heaven’s Gate,” whereas nearly the entire cast of “Roar” — starring Tippi Hedren, her then-husband/director Noel Marshall and her daughter Melanie Griffith and, oh, about 100 wild lions and tigers, plus a panther — almost died several times. Hedren and Griffith both suffered multiple severe wounds; Marshall was mauled so many times he contracted gangrene. And yet they — and soon-to-be-rock star cinematographer and future “Twister” director Jan De Bont, who himself had the back of his head scalped by a critter star — persisted, shooting for five years, even though the footage uniformly looks the same: frames swarming with rampaging animals punctuated by a couple truly terrified-looking humans.

Drafthouse Films has a knack for finding such bizarrely forgotten monstrosities; last year they gifted the world 1979’s Italian whatzit “The Visitor,” with John Huston controlling birds, Franco Nero as Jesus Christ himself and Sam Peckinpah as a kindly, charming abortionist. That shouldn’t have fallen in between the cracks of time, and nor should have “Roar,” which is too a singular to forget and definitely but definitely above criticism. What can one say about a monotonous but endlessly hair-raising family home movie that looks like a Disney nature doc gone feral, where real gouges are preserved in the final cut, for all to see? It’s a glimpse inside a shared delusion, starting with the very idea that the animals mean well. 

A film essentially-cum-accidentally about its own making, it stars the Hedrens/Griffiths/Marshalls as a family who have set up a home open to all wild lions and tigers. (Only Melanie uses her own name, and Marshall has a Charles Haid-ish look.) Things, of course, go horrifically awry, and the film moves from one home invasion set piece to the next, with the cats pouncing on, gnawing on and batting at not just our lead family but others who are more expendable. The tone is disarmingly schizo: the cute opening credits list its animal cast as part of the creative production team, and the tone is cute and safe until it turns into a relentless horror film that isn’t fully aware of how horrific it is. 

Hedren’s presence forces a comparison to “The Birds,” but it’s somehow even more relentless, as well as actually, unnecessarily accomplished. De Bont’s cinemascope framing is thoughtful and diverse; he finds new ways to shoot basically the same thing (lots of animals scampering about indoor and outdoor spaces), staving off visual boredom. The ethics of the thing are more questionable; knowing that Hedren didn’t get her face eaten off after pouring honey on it and inviting over a panther is a relief, therefore sanctioning it OK to watch. But it and much else besides is peerlessly irresponsible. And yet It happened and everyone survived, more or less. By that respect it would seem unethical NOT to watch it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge