“Kelly, you’re a maverick. We don’t have room for mavericks!”
Welcome to the last day of July, 2020! This month has five Fear Flashbacks this year (yes, I measure months by how many Fridays they have), and all of ‘em featured Jaws rip-offs! (Well, except Night of The Lepus.) We’ve had killer alligators with, uh, Alligator, killer fish with Piranha, killer animals in general with Day of the Animals and killer… killer whales with Orca! All good things (or so bad they’re good things) must come to an end, unfortunately, though I could watch killer animal/creature feature movies all summer long. We’re wrapping things up with what’s probably the first of the Jaws rip-offs to make it to theaters, and certainly one of the most well known. William Girdler’s Grizzly asks the question: what if it was a killer bear instead of a killer shark?
I’ve seen Grizzly a few times over the years, but I’m just not as attached to it as I am to movies like Prophecy, Kingdom of the Spiders or even Squirm. Maybe all those re-runs of Grizzly Adams made me less likely to think of a grizzly as a figure of menace, or maybe I first saw it in my ‘jaded’ teens and all the cringeworthy elements (of which there are many) stuck out more. Whatever the reason, Grizzly has never been high on my list of creature features. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy it – it’s just never been one of my favorites.
Grizzly was not William Girdler’s first rip-off film. In 1974 he’d made a film called Abby, a blacksploitation clone of The Exorcist. That film was pulled from theaters due to a lawsuit by Warner Brothers, who asserted it was too close to their film. Though the film was yanked, Warner Brothers lost the lawsuit and Girdler learned he could make make a rip-off as close to the original as he liked, as long as he changed enough of the central concept.
I rented Grizzly on Amazon Prime. It’s supposedly in HD, but I honestly could not tell. Scorpion Releasing has a Blu-ray that’s supposed to look pretty good and comes with a ton of extras. As “meh” as I’ve always been about Grizzly I’m kinda interested and will probably pick it up at some point.
Grizzly is available on streaming for subscribers to Hoopla as well as for rent and sale at the usual outlets. Note: the version on Tubi (free with ads) is actually the RiffTrax version.
It’s an extremely busy late-season weekend at a national park and head ranger Mike Kelly (Christopher George) is short-handed. He doesn’t have enough people to keep track of all the campers and back-packers, but it should be fine because the park has no natural predators. All of the bears have been moved to higher country, outside of the park. Unfortunately, one didn’t get the eviction notice.
How awesome is the tagline for this movie? “18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!” It promises much in the way of gory animal vs human action. That poster is also a classic, with artwork by comic book stalwart Neal Adams. Despite the poster and the tagline, however, Grizzly is not very good. A direct clone of Jaws, Grizzly features the conflicted moral authority in Kelly, the clueless bureaucrat whose concern for appearance and the bottom line gets people killed, the too-fascinated-for-his-own-good scientist and the hardened local military vet with a vehicle (chopper pilot and Vietnam vet in this instance).
Ever since I watched Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man I’ve been less likely to enjoy bears as antagonists/protagonists in film. (Erasing all that hard work Dan Haggerty did in my childhood.) However, the bear in this movie is hard to take seriously. While there are some gory sequences, I have to admit I laughed out loud during the first attack – on a couple of women out camping – when an arm goes flying across the clearing. The bear himself is considerably smaller than 18 feet in height and this is particularly noticeable when it’s seen against something – like a watchtower – that it can be compared to. Girdler does his best with POV shots, scenes with the bear running in the woods and a couple of forced-perspective shots, but most of the attacks consist of a closeup of a bear looking for another marshmallow (that’s how they got the bear to ‘roar’) and a stuffed bear arm. It’s not Night of the Lepus ridiculous, but it’s close.
The story beats of the film are familiar to anyone who’s seen Jaws – including the ‘drunk yahoos flood the area hoping to get the creature for themselves’ sequence, the ‘you’re fired!’ scene and the ‘I’m drinking because I blame myself’ scene. It’s not note for note, but it’s damn familiar. In the end the three main characters (there’s a photographer who I THOUGHT was going to be a major character, but whose plot gets dropped halfway through the film) go off after the bear themselves – both on horseback and in a helicopter. This goes about as well as it went in Jaws – except everyone but the main character dies. We do see a bear get exploded by a rocket launcher, however. It’s not as cool as it sounds.
Grizzly is really easy to make fun of – I mean REALLY easy – but there’s also this sense of chutzpa to it that makes you root for the things that do work. As much as the three male leads are copies of Brody, Quint and Hooper the actors (Andrew Prine and Richard Jaeckel in addition to George) are actually quite good and make the characters likeable. They don’t quite sell the rip-off moments – a story about ‘herds’ of grizzly bears stalking and killing a tribe of Native Americans is just not on the same level as Quint’s Indianapolis story – but it is fun to watch them try.
Yes. “Herd” of grizzlies. Just go with it.
While some of the transplanted plot lines work okay, others are just head scratchers. The park authority, Kitteridge (Joe Dorsey) won’t close the park… but it’s post-season. Shouldn’t the park be closed anyway? There’s an attack on a kid and his mom that finally precipitates the closing so Kelly and his crew can track the bear… but it’s a residential area outside of the park so I’m not clear how closing the park would have helped. Then there’s the usual exploitation level stuff like:
– The bear really likes to knock body parts off of things. In addition to the arm and a kids leg, the standout is a horse decapitation. I imagine that this is how mobsters get horse heads to put in beds.
– Speaking of body parts – how does that kid survive? It’s daylight when he gets his leg torn off and night-time when the authorities arrive. That’s a damn tough kid.
– It’s apparently warm enough in fall (wherever this park is) to strip down to your underwear and ‘dip your toes’ in a waterfall. When you know there’s a killer bear on the loose.
– If you play dead, a grizzly bear will bury your body “for later,” but “later” is apparently always the second you wake up and pull yourself out of the hole.
– You can explode a bear with a rocket launcher and have it all be a neat and tidy area of fire, rather than an immense, bloody splatter zone. Maybe arctodus ursus horribillis is full of gasoline.
The Bottom Line
William Girdler’s first animal attack film is a bit of a clunker and it made me appreciate how much better Day of the Animals – also with Christopher George – is. It does nothing new and nothing better than the film it copies and manages to make scenes that should be horrifying into moments of WTF humor. (Why is that woman who’s attacked in the tent have her hair standing straight up while the bear swings her around?!) What does work in Grizzly is some of the character interactions, some of the scenery and – as my friend Christopher Mills has said – the absolute shamelessness of its copying of Jaws. It would be quite fun to watch with a group of slightly inebriated friends. Not so much alone and sober in a cold basement.