This was not a camping accident!
With the recent news that such out-and-out genre classics from seventies would be getting dusted-down for a hi-def release, I was ecstatic to discover that some of my own personal favourites were amongst their number. Titles like The Car, whose UK DVD I reviewed a few years back, and Jeff Lieberman's wriggly horror, Squirm, I wondered if William Girdler's Jaws-with-paws monster-bear flick, Grizzly, would ever come prowling down from the high country to take a bite out of the Blu.
Well, his 1976 classic nature-rampage comes to US Blu later in the year from Scorpion, alongside with his other eco-thriller-chiller, Day of the Animals ... but, beating them to the campsite BBQ, comes this 1080i bare-bones region B release from France. I know I should perhaps have waited for the American disc because that will possibly mimic the terrific extra features found on Shriek Show's earlier double-platter 30th Anniversary edition.
But, hey ... I couldn't. So here's my re-jigged and slightly expanded review from yesteryear and a verdict on the quality of the French disc.
Alongside other low budget seventies exploitation quickies such as The Car, Race With The Devil and Dan Curtis’ rarely seen Curse of the Black Widow, Girdler’s Grizzly is areal guilty pleasure of mine. With this B-movie cash-in on that cynical decade's “nature's revenge” fad, I confess that I am as guilty as sin. And the amount of pleasure that it gives me should, by rights, offer what must surely be undisputable evidence that I should be put behind bars for a very long time. When Grizzly originally opened at the flicks I was around seven years of age. I'd seen Jaws and loved it. Still do - it's right up there alongside Gladiator, The Thing and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly vying for my top slot of all time.
But there was something sly, vicious and exhilarating about this land-based predator that helped cement my passion for horror movies, particularly monster rampages that offered up frequent limb severings and big toothy beasts that struck without warning and cared naught if they offed man, woman or child. With the aid of my best friend's mum, who worked in our local cinema (The Phoenix – which has long since returned to the ashes from which it rose, I'm afraid), I saw Grizzly every night for the first of its two-week run. It was a Cert A back then - just like Jaws had been (which I still find unbelievable given the amount of savagery and tension that both films depict) - and it proved to be a tremendously exciting experience every time that I saw it.
There were images and scenes in Girdler's furry cash-in that would play across the midnight screen of my mind's eye for many years to come, making Grizzly loom possibly far larger in my opinion than it really deserved. A couple of lousy TV broadcasts and a woeful VHS and initial DVD release did their best to take the magic out of it a long time ago, making me rethink the value of nostalgia and memory when applied to movies that once took your breath away. And then with that incredibly lavish 2-disc 30th Anniversary Edition, the time came to rekindle Grizzly's former glory as the film finally hit the small screen in a fabulously widescreen print that presented it as it appeared all those years ago when it first snarled and ripped ferociously around one half of The Phoenix's two auditoriums.
I never dared hope that it would ever scratch its way onto Blu-ray with such a lustrous presentation. And, sadly, so far, it has not. But more on the quality of this French BD in the technical department.
Surprisingly, there really aren’t that many films that chronicle such big bear terror-tactics. Clint Walker faced-off against the dreaded ol’ Satan in the terrific all-rounder Night of the Grizzly (BD reviewed separately), Robert Foxworth and Talia Shire battled a mutant variant in the likably stupid Prophecy, there was the cack-handed Claws which came out a year after Grizzly and even had the audacity to pass itself of a sequel to Girdler’s film, and Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin had to put aside their own rivalries if they wanted to outwit and defeat a relentless big Kodiak in The Edge. But none of them address the topic in such a straight-ahead, go-for-broke manner as Girdler’s.
The plot really couldn't be simpler. A massive grizzly bear, possibly a prehistoric throwback - although this fantastical element is really unnecessary when a bear standing over sixteen feet tall is frightening enough for anyone - has come down from the mountains and is happily chewing up campers and forest rangers at a state park wherever he comes across them. Despite the fiscal-minded bureaucrat who runs the park wanting to keep the place open - ring any bells, folks? - Chief Ranger Kelly (Christopher George) heads up the hunt for the beast with the aid of a helicopter, a rifle and even a bazooka. When the floodgates open and the woods fill up with beer-swigging, gun-toting rednecks the scene is set for carnage on a grand scale, with only Kelly, his chopper-flying friend Don (Andrew Prine) and wildlife naturalist Scotty (Richard Jaeckel) equipped with the necessary guts and know-how to hunt down the beast and make the park safe once more.
Yep, it is the Jaws template and no mistake. But, at least William Girdler's movie had the benefit of being the first of the many “nature-turns-nasty” imitations that wheeled across the screen after the success of Spielberg's classic. Girdler, who helmed cheapo exploitationers like Three On A Meathook, Day Of The Animals (which reunited him with George and Jaeckel as an entire Noah’s Ark of fauna turned amusingly bad) and The Manitou (a thoroughly lousy adaptation of Graham Masterson's novel) actually achieved some popularity with this film. In fact, Grizzly went on to become the most successful independent movie of 1976 (a record that stood until John Carpenter’s Halloween beat it two years later), achieving great returns from its foreign sales, particularly in Europe and Japan where its heroic man-against-monster mythos were lapped up. French critics even hailed it as “un grande classique”! In England, I especially remember the TV ads and the lobby display of a huge cardboard bear greeting the punters at the cinema. Well, it seemed huge to me as a kid, anyway. I’d kill for that standee now.
You know the thing about a bear … he’s got a cold nose. A wet nose. Like a dog’s nose. When he comes at you he doesn’t seem to be sniffin’ …
The problem that the film suffered then, and still suffers now, is that it mimics Jaws too damn closely. Now, that isn't such a bad thing in my book because I love both films so much that I can appreciate endless riffs on the established template, but I can understand the critical backlash that many seem to enjoy hurling its way nowadays. However, even with my much more cynical viewpoint and, more importantly, without falling into the trap of seeing the film through rose-tinted glasses, I still think that Grizzly is a great little slice of outdoors horror. Obviously the main characters appear to be close relatives of Police Chief Brody, shark expert Matt Hooper, barnacled old fisherman Quint and Mayor Vaughn from Jaws, and their bickering inter-conflicts betray a similar degree of alpha-male rivalry. Joe Dorsey's penny-pinching park administrator, Kittridge, may be a very pale substitute for Murray Hamilton's summer-town civic slime (he even looks like Hamilton), but his line about sending some flowers to the family of a shredded ranger reveals his true despicability, especially when delivered with such glib and bogus sympathy. The notion of men on the hunt to save their kin and their livelihoods from some rogue animal is the same well-worn story trajectory of course, yet a clever switch here is that none of our three main heroes really wants to kill the bear, for they understand implicitly that the beast is just doing ... well, what bears do.
They don't see hunting it as the sport that so many others do, they see it as a tragedy. Even when it gets personal, you can still sense reluctance on Kelly's part to close the net. They'd do it to save lives, but they'd still mourn the loss of great natural creature. But, before you go thinking that he's forgotten his main influence, Girdler even manages a little visual steal from Spielberg's celebrated reverse-zoom shot of Brody's shocked face after witnessing the little Kintner boy getting swallowed, when he pulls the same trick on Andrew Prine as the monster-bear comes a-charging for him. Far from being tacky, however, the shot actually looks quite good – possibly even better than its inspiration, as it enhances the helpless plight of a man who has just run out of bullets, telescoping his dire predicament into sharp and immediate focus. Prine is also responsible for a vaguely Quint-inspired monologue about bears dealing death on a grand scale to a tribe of Indians that harks back to his famed USS Indianapolis speech. Apparently, Prine actually adlibbed this snippet of character background, something he was pretty keen on doing throughout the movie wherever he thought the script was lacking. The story is a bit silly, to be honest, but I like Prine, and that fabulous Texan drawl of his … but one thing I noticed this time around, was that he actually talks too damn much! Part of me now wishes he’d reined-in on the adlibbing.
This bear … swallow you whole.
The violence wrought about by the grizzly on its rampage is fairly graphic - which is nice - although the splashy gore is a little too flamboyantly scarlet to be totally realistic. Nevertheless, there are plentiful shocks to be gained from each razor-clawed slaying. The terrible wounds inflicted on a small boy out playing with his pet rabbit are surprisingly horrific, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how the predator can effortlessly sever arms, legs and heads with one swipe. Girdler gains praise for being able to insert such savagery into what was clearly going to be a popular attraction in the wake of that one with the Great White Shark in it. Whereas Spielberg was a master craftsman finely honing the tension without actually reveling in the sliced guts, Girdler very slyly dishes up the gore with the hint of a mischievous gleam in his eye. He knew the score and probably couldn't quite believe he'd gotten away with such, ahem, grisly antics.
Mind you, it is important to note that the film received several cuts in America, yet remained uncensored in the UK even with its free-for-all A certificate! Well, it was free for me, at any rate, thanks to my mate’s mum! Perhaps because it is an animal committing the killings, that the censor became more lenient. In Jaws there was no actual malice involved, and even if the Grizzly seems to enjoy shredding puny little people a lot more than he should, he is certainly no sexual predator or crazed maniac, and his crimes could hardly be emulated by impressionable minds. This was the era of animals getting payback for Man’s reckless disregard for the environment. We had Squirm (worms), Night of the Lepus (rabbits – yeah … rabbits!), Orca – Killer Whale (erm, any ideas?), Nightwing (bats), Alligator (now you’re getting the hang of it) and, Frogs (no more clues). So perhaps it was only fair to depict aggrieved and endangered creatures standing up for themselves.
The trend also served as a moral warning and formed part of the sobering backlash against political and industrial corruption, and the mean-spirited attitude that the establishment and the big corporations were hell-bent on fostering. Girdler and his screenwriters Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon weren’t exactly trying to make a statement about the environment (nor was Spielberg or novelist Peter Benchley regarding Jaws, for that matter – they, like Girdler, were merely reminding us of our true place in the food-chain for pulp entertaiment), but their film unwittingly fit into a movement that became far more overt in the likes of Alligator, Prophecy, Piranha, Roger Corman’s Humanoids From The Deep, Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen (Blu-ray release NOW, dammit!) and Girdler’s own Day of the Animals, which definitely blamed Man for the critter uprising.
The Grizzly doesn’t have revenge on his mind, though. As the experts in the field remind us, “He’s just hungry.” But now that he’s tasted manflesh - and liked it – there will be no stopping him.
Whether or not he wanted to promote the great outdoors, Girdler and cinematographer William l. Asman utilise the full 2.35:1 aspect, taking advantage of some splendid panoramic aerial views of the hills and forests, lusciously capturing the scope of the landscape to lend atmosphere and realism to the story. When Kelly and Don survey the wreckage of the old fire-tower, the view beyond the ride is spectacular. The waterfall that becomes the scene of some doomed skinny-dipping (watch how a flesh-coloured bikini miraculously appears during the close-up!) is also picturesquely filmed. Having said all that though, there is a curiously restricted shot as we follow Scotty on his determinedly over-confident lone hunt through what appears to be a tiny copse loitering just outside someone's garden when he is supposed way off into the wilderness. But, on the whole, the film benefits from the wide open spaces which, on occasion, even have the effect of compounding the claustrophobia of a lonely old cabin, or a secluded campsite. And his footage of Teddy, the big grizzly used in the film, is pretty effective every time we actually see him and not a furry-suited substitute, or a huge fake arm slashing into the frame. Up close, he is beautifully terrifying to behold. I love the snarling look of seething fury on his face as he shovels earth upon a fresh victim. And when he stands tall to his full imposing height - whoa boy!
You’re gonna need a bigger forest …
Despite being completely and utterly influenced by Spielberg's three-men-against-a-shark plot, Grizzly still manages to rear upright on its own hind legs and make an original roar or two. Kelly isn't just a poor, land-lubbing substitute for Brody. He knows the terrain, he knows the wildlife and he certainly doesn't underestimate the threat out there in the woods. In fact, in keeping with his job, he is actually quite sympathetic towards the bear. It is just an animal, after all, prehistoric throwback or not. Although not as good an actor as Roy Scheider, Christopher George still imbues his forest ranger with a likeable personality and exhibits a genuine sense of loss at each of the killings, particularly those of his friends, and reveals a convincing degree of rage at the bureaucracy that has led to those deaths.
He's no latter-day action-hero either. He's stoic without being macho. He's confident without being arrogant and there is a real feeling of vulnerability about him that places his character in just as much jeopardy as any other wide-eyed chunk of bear-fodder out traipsing the woods. He even makes lighting a cigarette and taking an embittered puff on it seem dramatic without being forced. A common face in seventies and eighties exploitation, with the likes of Fulci's City Of The Living Dead, Kampuchea Express, Pieces and, of course, the awesome and notorious The Exterminator to his name, Christopher George carries the movie on his shoulders so capably that, just like James Brolin from The Car and the long-lost Night of the Juggler, it seems a deep shame that he never found the acclaim nor the success that he deserved. I would love to have seen how he would have played Col. Sam Troutman to Sly’s Rambo in First Blood. He’d have been far more convincing and helluva lot grittier than Richard Crenna, that’s for sure.
There’s a terrifically atmospheric moment when Kelly sits by a campfire during the night, staring out into the dark and ominous forest, the camera slowly moving in towards him. If you want to marry the shot up with Jaws, it would occur after the estuary attack when Brody looks out to sea through the struts of the pier. It is man v nature … an eerie moment of destiny. And it works just as effectively here in Grizzly. The screenplay makes an effort to expose what makes Kelly tick when he discusses his attitude to life and love, but George is savvy enough to give the whole thing a spin quirky enough to throw us off the scent. He has a conspiratorial gleam in his eye – something that he brought to many roles – and this actually makes him all the more believable.
Essaying the roles of Kelly's staunch, but pig-headed, buddies Scotty and Don are Richard Jaeckel and Andrew Prine, respectively. Jaeckel, in particular, is a familiar and dependable face. Here portraying what ostensibly amounts to the Matt Hooper character from Jaws, if we're going to keep up the pick 'n' mix similarities that is, he makes a hell of a lot more of his role than the script would initially have you think. A rugged character actor with a huge body of work behind him - winning turns in Delmer Daves’ original 3.10 To Yuma, Frankenheimer’s The Dirty Dozen and Robert Aldritch's brutal western Ulzana's Raid being stand-outs in a career that has seen him appear in probably every genre under the sun - he scampers about the woods, going native to live with the bears, looking for all the world like a little denim and buckskin-clad commando. Clearly his character's heart is with the bear, although he still nervously inspects the astonishing height of the scratch-marks it leaves on the trees, having never had one do this before. Too short and stocky to have ever been a leading man, Jaeckel, like Christopher George, is sadly no longer with us.
For me though, he has attained almost mythical status for his final scene here in Grizzly. Obviously I will not give away too much for those who either haven't seen the film, or simply can't remember what happens, but suffice to say his earlier line about the bear burying a fresh kill so that it can return to it later provides one of the most haunting set-pieces that I witnessed during my childhood. And hey, the sequence still packs a wallop today. A truly skin-prickling moment, folks, that leaves the throat dry. Andrew Prine, again, is a strictly B-list actor, his problem being that he just cannot ditch the southern drawl that typecasts him. Totally laidback and easygoing, Prine is like a low-rent Peter Fonda, although he actually looks a lot more like Drooper from The Banana Splits, but, as with his two cohorts, he remains steadfastly personable and accurately comes across in this situation as someone who is realistically vulnerable. His character may be a Vietnam veteran and a bit of a loner trying to suppress his own battle-honed bloodlust, but the clichés end right there. The movie opens with him giving a scene-setting forest fly-over to a group of land-developing wheeler-dealers to whom he explains the fragile state of the ecology. He tempers the ex-soldier stereotype with a sense of humour and a world-weary attitude that places him at loggerheads with the more redoubtable and upbeat naturalist, Scotty. He is surely the Quint of the set-up, especially as he enjoys baiting the eager tracker, but he is far more even-tempered.
Yet, as with Jaws, the three perfect an onscreen chemistry that provides a solid backbone for the film. All three of them give the impression that they should genuinely be there in the woods … and haven’t just been hauled in from central casting. Which is a marked contrast to many of the supporting players – mainly other Rangers and redneck hunters – who have clearly arrived directly from central casting!
You go in the tent? Tent goes in the wood? Bear’s in the wood. Our bear. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies …
Inevitably, for such a low-budget independent quickie, Grizzly runs afoul of some naff moments. Girdler junks some of the action set-pieces with some ham-fisted direction and an occasional inability to avoid even the most banal of genre staples, such as a female victim stumbling over with the monster in hot pursuit. If you look, though, the actress does almost blind herself on a nasty branch as she plummets from the beast. When the call goes out that there is a man-eater on the loose, the resulting stampede of campers all fleeing the woods is quite hysterical. Girdler makes it look as though there were a hundred people all occupying the same copse. The not-so-happy camper who is bashed headfirst between two trees by the bear is a definite low point, however. Just why would a giant killer bear do that to its prey? The nubile young female ranger who decides to go for a quick strip and dip behind the waterfall is a complete misstep, although the water turning red is suitably evocative. And the use of a man in a shoddy bear-suit for brief moments such as when the grizzly spins the downed chopper, or smashes a huge - and unconvincing - paw through the side of a ramshackle cabin threatens to undo all the atmospheric bear POV camerawork and the terrific footage of the real star of the film, Teddy the “barely” trained bear.
Girdler even commits the sin of stretching out the scene of Kelly getting to grips with his bazooka simply to eke out some more suspense. The thing is, he doesn’t need to resort to such tricks – two-thousand pounds of voracious carnivore bearing down on the hero is knuckle-whitening enough as it is. The score by Robert O' Ragland (10 to Midnight) has some bravura hunt and kill cues that make the spine tingle, and he does affect a primal discord with jangling percussion and raucous brass, but there are some fairly appalling moments, too. Just listen to those whimsical Love Boat-style notes during the main title theme – this really sets the wrong tone for what will follow – and there are occasional lapses into TV movie territory. Although, I have to admit that I do like the little harmonica lament that tends to accompany Scotty as he treks unwisely through the forest on his own. This motif also makes a haunting coda at the end of the film, which does go some way to making up for any musical mangling that has gone before by supplying a sombre sense of tragedy and futility to the whole man versus nature conflict.
Smile, you son of a … buh … bear!
But forget those dumb bits and revel in the gloriously down and dirty killings and the direct, on-the-hoof style of narrative. There's no motive for the bear suddenly slaying people left, right and centre and a truly nightmarish quality to the manner in which it outwits and out-maneuvers its hunters. A couple of great scenes detail how it snaffles the bait from a trio of heavily armed good old boys, and how it leads Kelly and Don on a wild goose chase before doubling back on them to pinch their bait as well! But kudos where it is due for the marvelous attack on the rickety old Arrow Tower, a sequence that sees the Grizzly truly becoming the epitome of evil. More akin to the Car in the film of the same name than the shark in Jaws, the beast reveals in this scene a pure and wanton bloodlust that goes way beyond simply killing to survive. And it is scenes such as this that cleverly remove a lot of audience sympathy for the bear. Well, obviously the savage mauling that little Bobby and his poor mother suffer goes a long way to putting the bear in the bad books too ... but, somehow, its excitement at destroying the tower marks the grizzly out to be something more monstrous than merely a starving animal with a taste for human flesh.
This was another scene that stuck in my memory and I'm pleased to report that it stands up well today. Likewise, the aftermath of each killing resounds with shock and fear by those who make the discovery and pick up the pieces. I love scenes in which the good guys stumble over someone's remains, or race to assist somebody that they know is in trouble, only to get there too late and then discover another victim - and Grizzly has a few such classics up its furry sleeve. Hats off for the moment when Kelly's largely sidelined love interest, Allison (the rather unappealing Joan McCall), accidentally sinks her hands into the gooey remnants of a devoured girl in the mud, and the late arrival of Kelly and Don to Scotty's aid. Against the undulating synth sizzle on the score that seems to taunt a mocking warning, their stunned and horrified faces say it all. Bravura stuff, folks, albeit on a shoestring. And the climax is a belter, too. Check out Kelly's awe-filled expression when he finally gets a close-up look at his furry nemesis, and Don's rifle-swinging last stand still has my heart in my mouth. Sure, I'm a sucker for this piece of my cinematic childhood and prone to see it gleam a little more than many others might ... but hey, in a movie that sees a headless horse stagger for a couple of last steps, a helicopter swung around by an enraged grizzly bear and a wooden tower hauled to the ground under ursine assault - what's not to love?
Given the opportunity and the finance, there are two films that I would love to remake. The first is Amicus’ adaptation of James Blish’s werewolf short story There Shall Be No Darkness, entitled The Beast Must Die, and the other is, obviously, Grizzly. In spite of its limited narrative and purely knee-jerk exploitation theme, I think the world is ready for another BIG BEAR RAMPAGE MOVIE!!!
Well, just as I did with The Car, I will admit that Grizzly is trashy, schlocky fun that is elevated in my opinion because I just love this genre so much. But, for those of you that remember it from those distant days, it is still a pretty damn decent thriller that makes no excuses and pulls very few punches. I can only recommend it whole-heartedly ... but then you'll just have to bear with me!
Oh dear, oh dear. I’ll get me coat …
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