Rated: Either 2/5 or 5/5, depending on how you look at it.
Saying that this film was released in 1981 is a bit deceiving, considering it took nearly a decade to actually finish shooting it, on a 12 million dollar budget. That aside, this movies is pure insanity. You know those horror stories about what it was like behind the scenes making that film Apocalypse Now? That’s practically the equivalent to what it was like for this movie, except rather than heart attacks and losing their minds (their minds were gone by the time the project got started, because only insane people would think this was a good idea) , they got mauled by lions and tigers and panthers and elephants (all of the above combined added up to 100+ animals on set/location).
So, you’re probably wondering what the hell this movie is? Well, in terms of plot description, it’s about some hillbilly (who is also the director of the film, Noel Marshall) who lives with an insane number of lions at his house in the middle of nowhere in the African continent. He has convinced his family to come over and visit him to see what its like, failing to inform them about all the lions living on the property. He goes to the airport to act as their escort, while getting in accidents along the way that sink his boat and crash a car, and arrives so late that the family arrived at the house well before he arrived at the airport. So now they have to try to survive against all the wildlife until their husband/dad can make it back.
So, you would think this is ripe for thriller/horror material, and a warning against the dangers of trying to tame lions and stuff. But strangely enough, the movie tries to be lighthearted about all this most of the time. It tries to play much of the stuff going on for laughs, even though you just know it’s downright terrifying stuff. The first time I watched this film, I was on the edge of my seat throughout most of the runtime, just wondering when something was going to go wrong, when someone was going to get mauled, when actors break character and run for their lives. I mean, it’s impossible not to feel the tension from virtually everyone (except for that insane director) that is on-screen, the worried looks in their eyes with each passing second, with lions being anywhere from several yards away to not even a millimeter away; as in lions made contact with pretty much everyone at multiple times throughout the film.
Now don’t get me wrong, we don’t see anyone get badly hurt or anything on-screen.
Ok, that’s a lie, we see a few people get hurt on screen, but they’re minor characters. It’s knowing about the behind-the-scenes stories that are more fascinating than the film itself. And yes, behind the scenes, the injuries were a shitload worse than they are in the movie itself. Everyone on set got injured, including the cameramen and other technicians. Well, almost everyone. The black guy who acted as a friend to Noel Marshall’s character managed to get out of the entire production unscathed. Because he was the smart one, he knew to stay away from these lions, and you could tell from his mannerisms in the movie. The worst of the injuries probably happened to poor Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren (yes, THAT Tippi Hedren, from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; guess it wasn’t enough that she had to be traumatized by seagulls in her last film, now she had to move on to lions and elephants), and daughter of Noel Marshall (and to add to the trauma, Tippi was married to this psycho director, but divorced him after the film was released). Melanie Griffith got her face clawed/chewed so bad she not only almost lost an eye, but also needed reconstructive surgery.
Oh, but it gets better. Guess what the theme to the film is. The moral lesson. Seriously, take a guess, I’ll wait.
Made your guess? Good. If you thought the theme was about how nature can’t be controlled, that the wild will always stay wild, then you’re thinking too much along the lines of common sense. We’re dealing with insane people with a budget here. The theme of the film is about how animals and people can live together in harmony so long as they understand one another. The moment I figured out that’s the message the film was pushing, unironically and in all seriousness and with honest intentions, that was the moment I fell on the floor laughing my ass off. I mean, for crying out loud, they didn’t consider rewriting the theme just a tad during that entire decade of filming when all this stuff was going down? Not even when the 70+ cast/crew members got injured and/or hospitalized? Paul Verhoeven must’ve been shaking his head somewhere in the world going all, “How stupid can people be? They’re making my job of inserting satire into my films impossible damnit!” This is peak irony. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film more misguided than this, not under these extreme circumstances, not by a longshot.
And, to be honest, there’s not much else to say about this film. The first 30 minutes introduces the dad at the house, going to the airport, and the family arriving at the house. The rest of the film is a glorified Scooby-Doo chase that lasts for the next hour. It gets monotonous, which would normally make something like this extremely boring, but it’s very difficult to get bored watching something so batshit insane, where there were virtually no stunt-doubles because only the actors and actresses and some animal trainers who raised the lions themselves would dare get that close to them (not even stuntmen or stuntwomen are this insane). Although it is worth noting that Melanie Griffith originally didn’t want to do the film, so a friend of hers named Patricia Nedd played her part for a few scenes, until Melanie changed her mind and went back into the part. I’m unsure of the details as to what scenes Patricia was in.
There’s a German cut of the film, which I haven’t seen, which has an additional scene in the film where a lion clamps onto Noel Marshall’s leg and pulls him down, and Marshall let’s out a horrendous scream. A part of me wants to see that bit, but a larger part of me doesn’t feel like tracking down a German VHS tape and shelling out money for it.
On a last note, how the idea for the film came to be. Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall found out about an abandoned house that a game warden used to live in, in the middle of Africa , which became populated by a pride of lions. Guess they decided that was a wonderful enough idea to make a movie about living in a house with a bunch of lions.
Anyway, do I recommend the movie? Hell yeah I do! This has to be seen to be believed. Currently available for free on youtube as of this writing. Now don’t get me wrong, just because I recommend it doesn’t mean it’s a good film. Far from it. The acting is mediocre at best, the pacing off, the dialogue so bad and out of place it becomes funny, and not really much of a plot. But it makes up for all that that with, well, pretty much everything else I’ve brought up in this review. Plus it becomes a bit fascinating seeing the lion interactions. For instance, I’ve learned that lions hate the water, but tigers seem to love it.