Monster Movie Monday: Grizzly (1976)
Matthew Turner | On 11, May 2020
Director: William Girdler, David Sheldon
Cast: Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Joan McCall, Joe Dorsey, Charles Kissinger, Mike Clifford
Watch Grizzly online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
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“The most dangerous jaws in the land!” So says the poster for Grizzly, a 1976 creature feature and blatant Jaws rip-off that became the top grossing independent film for that year and earned nearly $38 million worldwide. Co-directed by David Sheldon and William Girdler, the film was reportedly inspired by writer-producer Harvey Flaxman’s encounter with a bear during a family camping trip, although it’s likely that the box office receipts for Jaws were a bigger influence.
The plot wastes no time in getting down to business. When a giant grizzly attacks and eats two attractive young ladies in a national park, Ranger Kelly (Christopher George) recruits helicopter pilot Don Stober and expert naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) to help him track down and subdue the bear before it kills again. Opposition comes in the form of grumpy park supervisor Charley Kittridge (Joe Dorsey), who’s effectively the Mayor from Jaws, courting the press and allowing campers to remain in the lowlands even though there’s a killer bear on the loose.
Wisely, the filmmakers opt to use a real bear for the majority of the shots and the bear wrangling is excellent, especially when he’s knocking down an observation tower or attacking a particular vehicle. The part of the Grizzly is played by a Kodiak bear named Teddy, who was the largest bear in captivity at the time. There is, however, a certain amount of height discrepancy – Teddy was 11 feet tall, while the script cites the Grizzly as being at least 15 feet and the film’s publicity adds another three feet, calling him: “18 feet of towering fury!”
In fact, the filmmakers used two bears for the production – Teddy and a smaller, black bear – which is why his feet are completely black in the shots where he’s running around. As for the special effects, they largely extend to a single swiping claw shot (with the claw obviously fake) and lots of fake blood, rather than attempting any rubbish-looking model bear or man-in-a-bear-suit action.
In fairness to Grizzly, the gory moments are pretty impressive, even if the film lacks the money shot of a bear actually tearing into flesh. The direction cleverly relies on quick shots of blood-soaked limbs landing on the ground, thereby achieving the required shock factor. They really go the extra mile in that regard too, with the bear attacking a child in one scene and swiping a horse’s head clean off in another.
As creature feature body counts go, Grizzly’s is pretty decent, getting very close to double figures. Hilariously, the film tries to backtrack over the apparent mauling of a child and inadvertently makes everything a lot worse by adding the following exchange: “He’s alive?” “Part of him is!”
Grizzly isn’t above a little gratuitous exploitation elsewhere either, even at the cost of laughable ridiculousness. For example, in one scene, a female ranger decides to take a break from hunting the ferocious killer bear (who has been shown to prefer the ladies – they’re tastier, apparently) and strip down to her underwear to enjoy a relaxing shower in a handy nearby waterfall. No prizes for guessing how that ends, although the grizzly should at least be congratulated for his stealth, since she doesn’t notice him get behind the waterfall until it’s too late.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plot rips off Jaws almost beat for beat, up to and including a supposedly emotional, Quint-like speech about an Indian massacre from the pilot, who’s also a Vietnam vet. Even Robert O Ragland’s score has a suspiciously familiar bass note combo during the attack sequences.
One nice little directorial touch is the use of a point-of-view bear-cam (complete with little growling noises) for the prey-stalking sequences. However, it’s more than a little inconsistent, sometimes varying wildly in height and later breaking its own point-of-view rules by staying on the bear’s face, once Teddy has been revealed to the audience.
The human performances are actually pretty good, even if the dialogue sometimes veers into borderline incomprehensible territory – Kelly’s flirting, for example, is a good indication of why he’s still single. Christopher George (who’s like a cross between Ray Liotta and Michael Shannon) is suitably intense as Kelly, while Jaeckel does a good impression of Midnight Cowboy-era Jon Voight as Scotty. However, the film completely ignores its female lead – Joan McCall’s character (a feisty photographer who has a banter-laden relationship with Kelly) disappears without trace about halfway through the film, inadvertently making it that much more sexist, because almost the last thing Kelly says to her is to stay behind because it might be dangerous out there. Basically, it’s like the romance subplot was so lacklustre that the film just lost interest in it and dumped it halfway through.
Finally, without giving too much away, Grizzly has a honey of an ending that involves a bear attacking a helicopter (they cop out of the obvious solution, sadly) and one of the most ludicrously over-the-top explosions you’ve ever seen. Glorious trash.
Grizzly (1976) is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.