The movie Jaws did a lot more back in 1975 than just keep us the hell away from the water; it kicked off an entire sub-genre of horror films. Now before you all start calling for my blood, of course I’m aware that there were plenty of “when animals attack” films around before that first great white had his buffet off the coast of Amity Island: The Killer Shrews, Pigs, Frogs; even little classics like Night of the Lepus and Sssssss come to mind; hell, I own most of those. Still, it’s pretty obvious that it was Spielberg’s classic tale of the man-eating shark that really brought the concept of nature itself being the monster into the mainstream, and is still spawning imitators almost forty years later.
One of the quickest to follow (and most fun) of these imitators came just a year later with Grizzly, directed by William Girdler and starring genre staples Christopher George, Andrew Prine, and that most popular of the seventies character actors that we all knew his face but none knew his name, Richard Jaeckel. Often called “Jaws With Claws”, the film is very obviously inspired by that earlier blockbuster (I’m gonna avoid the term “rip-off”; it is, but still has a charm of its own).
The busy season for a beautiful national park has ended, but they’re having their biggest ever post-season crowd; lots of campers are staying put for a bit longer, enjoying the lovely scenery and mountain air before winter sets in. Unfortunately for these nature nuts, an abnormally large, hungry grizzly bear has come down from the higher regions seeking food; we watch two girls essentially torn limb from limb, one of them snatched from a wooden shed after it’s completely demolished by the big-ass bear. Head ranger Mike Kelly (George) scrambles with his limited staff to try to contain the beast, keeping certain regions clear of campers while he and his crew seek to eliminate the threat. However, the bear (obviously smarter than the average one) circles back and kills again, this time taking out one of the rangers themselves. While still recoiling from this loss (and dealing with the pressure to solve the crisis by the asshat park administrator), Kelly is further set back when the bear ventures even further into populated zones and kills yet another camper, this time in full view of a lot of other vacationers.
Desperate to stop this slaughter, Kelly enlists the aid of rugged woodsman and naturalist Arthur Scott (Jaeckel) and local bush pilot Don Stober (Prine) to track down the rogue animal, but as the days drag on, the body count grows; the bear proves both its intelligence and ferocity as it continues to rampage, always one step ahead of its dogged pursuers…
Girdler’s use of the backdrop of the forest is well done; from the panoramic aerial shots to the streams and waterfalls in the tree-strewn setting, it’s both beautiful and fearsome as you hear the crackling and the rustle as the beast makes his way about. There’s a “bear-view” POV gimmick in some scenes that’s a little trite, but thankfully not overused; when the camera rises to towering heights as the bear “stands”, the technique does give you a good impression of how massive the beast is supposed to be. The acting is first-rate for this type of film, and pretty darned good for any type of film. The principals are convincing, albeit fairly easy to compare to their inspirations; gravel-voiced Chris George is a perfect determined hero (a nice nod to Chief Martin Brody), Andrew Prine is sympathetic as the nature-loving combat vet with a conscience, and Richard Jaeckel makes his cynical portrayal of Scott both tough and likeable (these two characters split the personalities of Quint and Hooper, depending on the scene). The bear effects are a little dated in this day and age, but I still found them pretty effective. The gore is the standard fare for the mid-seventies; the blood flies when it’s called for, and at times it’s very realistic; other times, it’s a bit bright. We see a little dismemberment (both human and horse), and I will say that it has one shot that you just don’t see in many movies, then or now…but I’m sure it was doubly shocking then.
I can’t help but like this film, and I’m obviously not alone; it was a huge surprise hit, and has gained something of a cult following by way of its long run through late-night television and drive-in film festivals. The flick isn’t Oscar material, it’s simply good fun; although it unabashedly rides the coattails of Spielberg’s far superior hit from the summer before, it has a decent narrative and a ton of cheesy camp goodness that can’t be done intentionally; it’s just a matter of fate.
I’ll recommend this one; I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t. It’s corny, it’s a blatant imitation, and it has a lot of contrived bullshit for your trouble (thank God bush pilots in national parks keep rocket launchers as standard equipment, and thank God grizzly bears are essentially napalm-filled fur bags)…
…but dammit, it’s fun to watch.
If you don’t agree, hey; I can dig it. That’s what makes horse races.
That’s my bit.