Right, now who’s heard of this movie?
Okay …so we’ve got one … two … ah … is your hand up? Right, so that’s four. Including me.
Well, you know what? This is an absolute gem that really ought to have had much greater recognition, and affection. It’s a Western-cum-comedy-drama-cum-eco-horror. And it’s a belter.
“Getting’ near the end o’ April. Just about time for Ol’ Satan to start stirring. Yes sir, just about that time.”
“Uh … Ol’ Satan?”
“Fifteen-hundred odd pounds of the meanest, wickedest animal this side o’ Hades.”
“Sounds like a Grizzly.”
“Looks like a Grizzly. But folks around here are beginning to think he’s the Devil, himself.”
Big Clint Walker – the good-natured giant of the Western, with the classic series Cheyenne and 1958’s Fort Dobbs to his name (as well as the great TV mystery-horror Scream of the Wolf and the enjoyably deranged Killdozer andSnowbeast) – never quite made it to the top of the heap, despite being the biggest pack of weathered muscle that Hollywood sported during the sixties, even bigger than the mighty Woody Strode at his most chiselled and gladiatorial. What was unique about him was that, as hulking and as buff as he was, he was so damn amicable, soft-spoken and peaceable. He looked intimidating, like some villain’s henchman, but he was the epitome of the quiet and reluctant hero. A man of principle and solid, foundation-hewn moral values, he would have to be pushed before resorting to violence as we would see with terrific results in The Dirty Dozen. Walker took this cliché and moulded it around his own imposing persona and although he never had the gravitas or charisma of the other Clint, or even any evocative shades of grey, he was a great fixture in a film, a dependable rock of stalwart conviction and a formidable icon of two-fisted, red-blooded macho determination.
And, here, in The Night of the Grizzly, Joseph Pevney’s 1966 ode to man’s claim to dominance over the natural world, Walker epitomises the code of the honourable and selfless hero with inspirational and steadfast aplomb.
One of my all-time favourite exploitation horror flicks is William Girdler’s Grizzly. I’ve reviewed its DVD already, and would love to see it claw its way onto Blu-ray. Genuinely exciting, surprisingly gory and full of B-movie genre stalwarts like Christopher George, Richard Jaekel and Andrew Prine, this was purely devised as being Jaws-on-land and spearheaded a slew of seventies pictures about nature fighting back, including The Swarm, Night of the Lepus, Orca – Killer Whale, Nightwing, Squirm, Piranha and Claws and, until Anthony Hopkins came along and incurred the wrath of a bloody big Kodiak in The Edge, it was the bear-story to end them all. And, truth be told, it is still top of my list. But Josepth Pevney’s more versatile and all-encompassing saga of a family settling down in a new territory, making some new friends and some new enemies along the way, having little adventures and dramas left, right and centre as they seek to make a new life for themselves, pulls few punches in its depiction of the savagery of nature and becomes, despite some marvellous old school comedy, rootin’-tootin’ brawls and copious frontier banter and soul-searching, a Captain Ahab-style story of vengeful obsession and rugged outdoors terror. When the big bear strikes close to home and threatens all that he holds dear, Walker’s ex-sheriff Big Jim Cole swears a vendetta against the animal that will test all of his courage, strength and cunning.
Cole has put away his badge and hauled his extended family, including his loyal former deputy and irascible sidekick Sam Potts (Don Haggerty), across the country to take up residence at the ranch he has inherited from his grandfather. Once there they find the place to be a dilapidated mess but, fortified with frontier spirit and the solid bonhomie that you would normally only come across in vintage Disney fare, they set-to and spruce their new home up with optimism and hope. With cattle bought in, Big Jim intends to make the place a profitable estate … but he’s going to have to overcome some stubborn and aggressive obstacles first.
With a debt to be paid on the ranch already and rapidly dwindling funds in their saddlebags, the Coles have to scrimp and slave-away to make ends meet and put food on the table. Greedy proto-land-developer Jed Curry (a great turn as the local big shot from Keenan Wynn, who ended-up as fish-food in Joe Dante’s Piranha), wants the Cole ranch for himself and constantly tries to prise it from Jim’s grasp, and when decent offers don’t work he resorts to dirty tricks and less savoury means of persuasion. His two sons, played by TV Tarzan-to-be and one-off Doc Savage, Ron Ely, and Sammy Jackson, together with their moonshining buddy Duke Squires (Med Flory) become the immediate thorns in the Coles’ side, a trio of rowdy delinquents who are eager for a dust-up at the drop of a hat. Mr. Cotton Benson (Regis Toomey), the bank manager, is a trustworthy sort (which is a novelty for a banker, isn’t it?) who looks out for their interests, but when Curry leans on him too, the Coles’ plight begins to look mighty sore indeed.
But by far the greatest threat to peace and harmony on the homestead is the presence of the meanest, nastiest, ‘orneryest old Grizzly Bear ever to come down the mountain. Aptly monikered Ol’ Satan by the townsfolk, who have long known of his seasonal rampages, the bear comes down from the high ground to visit the Coles and pay his bloody respects to his new neighbours. Able to sniff out traps and to remove the bait from them without ever being caught, and having proved pretty much impervious to bullets during his previous reigns of terror, this is a beast that kills for the sheer pleasure of it, much like the ferocious lions in The Ghost and the Darkness. The main thrust of the plot then revolves around his thunderous activities and the futile attempts made by the puny humans to thwart his relentless attacks. It seems that the odds are stacked against Big Jim and his brood, but when the going gets tough, Big Jim loads his Winchester and unsheathes his Bowie knife and just wades right in. He is a noble, righteous man … but when the time comes to defend his kith and kin and his property, nothing can stand against him.
It is funny how most modern films find it very difficult to merge different themes into one story. They are clearly defined by their genre and although subtext can feature heavily in their narrative, they tend to stick rigidly to their core momentum of thriller, chiller or giggler. With The Night of the Grizzly, and so many productions from the Silver Age and earlier, there is a more ambitious, yet relaxed approach to the storytelling that allows for copious asides, subplots and colourful diversions. Almost as a subconscious reflection of how real life plods along with happiness, disaster, frustration and fortune dogging every step, Pevney, working from Warren Douglas’ screenplay, allows for comedy, threats, fights and fun to punctuate the meandering plot, ensuring that the story always has something new and interesting in the next scene, something that you probably hadn’t expected. Like a drunken chicken, for a kick-off. Or maybe Clint Walker crooning a love ballad to his wife under a star-filled canopy.
The cast is eclectic and whether they have good intentions or foul, each actor certainly appears to be having a wonderful time. Harassed by the Cole’s young daughter, Gypsy (Victoria Paige Meyerlink), from the moment the family arrive, rascally Jack Elam’s bulbous eye soon becomes happily smitten with the little urchin, and the pair become firm friends. The scenic spot of idyllic reverie when Gypsy spies a bumblebee on a flower and informs Elam’s loveable layabout, Hank, that it looks just like him is a nice touch. Ron Ely boasts immense confidence as the wayward – though not too nasty – instigator of tricks and scams and even if Walker towers above his equally impressive frame you can still believe his boastful, cocky sneer when Ely goes up against him in a fist-fight.
Nancy Kulp’s prissy fop performance as legal assistant Miss Jane Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies is carried over into her role as eternal wallflower Wilhelmina Christina Maxmiliana Peterson – “Wil … I’ll just call you Bill!” says a tongue-tied Sam - the proprietor of the town’s general store who is immediately smitten by Sam Potts and spends the rest of the movie trying desperately to make him her man. Her constant rhapsodising of “Beautiful Dreamer” gets to be quite irritating … until it receives tender pathos via a shocking development later on, which only serves to make this fledgling romance even more touching. Ellen Corby, another Hillbilly veteran and, most famously, Esther Walton from The Waltons, brings some surprising decency to the Clampett-like brood of scratty ne’er-do-wells that Big Jim is forced to purchase livestock from.
Whilst the supporting cast of miscreants and colourful cowpokes is always engaging, there is the danger that the good folk back at Big Jim’s ranch could be considered bland by comparison. But as Angie Cole, Martha Hyer is not just the traditional doting wife and mother who awaits her boys coming back at the end of the day with a heart-warming stew and some loving platitudes. She has a few grave doubts and hang-ups about their situation and she certainly airs them to her goliath of a hubby, leading to a few of the film’s darker, more intimate and perhaps more insidious moments. Kevin Brodie as their impetuous son Charlie is given an interesting, though effectively ambiguous backstory that adds an unusual tinge to the film’s more dramatic third act. Personally speaking, I would have liked this element to have been more fleshed-out, but as it stands, it is a chapter that serves as a skilful tease to the emotional drama that accelerates in the final stretch. And Candy Moore gives Meg Cole, the pretty teenage niece of the clan, the necessary combination of perky allure and naïveté that is only going to get her into bother with the boys in the town.
“Ain’t a man alive that hasn’t got trouble. It’s how he handles that trouble that counts.”
It is a bit strange how the Cole clan take a lot of abuse on the chin and just accept it with a happy-go-lucky grin in something of a Disney-esque “boys will be boys” sort of way. I mean if I’d just taken my family one-hundred-and-fifty miles across country to our new home and, on day one, we’d been robbed, “politely” threatened by the local bigwig, my niece ogled by the local hooligans and my son set-upon by three other lads … I’d probably have raised the entire neighbourhood to the ground and beaten the surviving populace to a pulp. And I only come up to Clint Walker’s kneecaps!
When the local goons inveigle some of their illicit hooch (we are told that this is a “dry” county) into the punch at the town ball, poor Meg is led to it like a lamb to the slaughter. Pevney goes all out with this and when Meg takes a swig of it, believing that the rowdies are making a peace-offering, she goes Hulk-green, absolutely neon-emerald in a moment of pure visual fantasy. Even in the realm of this anything-goes show, this is a quirkily off-kilter image, and it becomes another high note in a film that is literally filled-to-busting with them.
Whilst early sequences play more for laughs – especially poor Gypsy’s unfortunate encounter with a skunk, which leaves the cute little waif amusingly ostracised from the ranch for a time, her burgeoning relationship with Jack Elam’s grizzled old soak, and Wilhelmina’s infatuation with poor Sam - but once we are into the last third of the movie, the tone changes and becomes much harder and deadly serious. An unwelcome blast-from-the-past shows up in town in the guise of formidable bounty-hunter Cass Dowdy (a sinister performance from Leo Gordon, who sounds as though he has stolen John Vernon’s voice), who has his own score to settle with Big Jim, and the scene is set for a violent grudge-match that rages all over the mountains. With a darkening mood, the film then plays cat-and-mouse as both men vow to take down the bear, determined to outdo the other for the reward money that would save the Coles from losing the ranch. Tragedy and bloody death await them as Ol’ Satan turns the tables and the hunters become the hunted high up in the killing ground.
It is the arrival of Cass that opens up the curious wound connected to Charlie. Although the mercenary is a renowned killer who will happily hunt down anything or anyone if the pay is right, and someone who shuns virtually everybody except his trio of hunting dogs, he has a distinct affinity with Charlie. Adding some flame to this, when he bumps into Angie, there is definitely a flicker of something in their eyes … and the reluctant politeness that Big Jim greets him with definitely appears to mask more than merely the snippet of shared history that the two men have that we are told about. Some may say this is all just an undeveloped plot strand, or that it really is as simple as the script makes out … but I like this weirdly oblique relationship, especially as it provokes some odd and perplexing implications about the cosy home set-up that the Coles have. All may not have been as it seemed back in Utah … and there are frequent references to leaving some bad stuff behind them.
“Grizzlies don’t bother you unless you bother them …”
Oh, you reckon, do you?
The bear, himself, is disappointingly cuddly when you see him in wider shots, when he is merely mooching around on all fours. But when Pevney utilises him during the attack and hunt sequences he becomes a true monster. Rearing up on his hind-legs he might not seem as huge as the rampaging predator in Grizzly, who gets to push over a watch-tower and spin a downed helicopter around, but he is very definitely a threat of hellish proportions. Some fake paws and a mocked-up, jaw-snapping furry head – again, just like in Grizzly – smash through timbers and grope at people, and there must be some poor bloke dressed up in shaggy fur during a couple of the more close-up fracas, but there is a level of menace and violence during these encounters that is not what you expect from what, to all intents and purposes, is a knockabout family adventure. An early set-piece has the animal, completely masked in shadows, attacking the stable and the combination of him pounding on the walls, the whinnying of the terrified horses and the alarming wrecking-spree that ensues is actually quite terrifying. A couple of tremendous shots have the bear, standing its full height and coming right at Cole, actually dwarfing even him. Now this is patently an optical effect, with the two matted into the same frame … but, man, it still looks properly fearsome. And Pevney goes for broke with gut-shrivelling images of Ol’ Satan charging after people.
Make no mistake – this isn’t all cutesy, apple-pie eating roister-doistering. People do get savaged by the bear and there is genuine menace and death involved. And, rather nicely as I’ve found reason to mention him in a quite a number of reviews lately, the makeup for the bear-assaults on man and beast was accomplished by Wally Westmore, the man behind some of the monstrous creations in many SF, Horror and Fantasy pictures since the early 30’s with Island of Lost Souls and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde providing him with an iconic headstart. Interestingly, the rambunctious score for The Night of the Grizzly was by Leith Stevens, who worked on many of the same projects as Westmore – such as When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds and The Atomic City. His score here isn’t particularly memorable, but it serves both the comic knockabout angle and the exciting Western adventure side of things with appreciable exuberance.
Although predominantly shot on-location in the San Benardino National Forest, there are still a couple of studio-sets employed. These come as something of a surprise amidst the extensive outdoor photography, but it would seem that Pevney wanted to remind us of the mountain range that the bear has come down from even during some of the quieter moments. These take the form of matte-shots that do tend to stick out like a sore thumb – Big Jim and Angie reflecting on their bleak predicament by the picket-fence, say. The climactic man versus bear sequence, however, seems to benefit from the studio-based action as the quite frightening set-piece appears all the more nightmarish with the controlled lighting and the surreal mountaintop cave that Jim is forced to hide in. All of this is intercut quite successfully with the real location, and even the day-for-night shooting doesn’t manage to betray the suspense in the slightest. Although he had directed quite a number of features before this, Pevney was perhaps best known for his television work, with a wagonload of Western shows and even the space-based frontier adventure of Star Trek to his name, as well as episodes of The Munsters, Mission Impossible, Petrocelli and Trapper John, MD. He showed real flair for both drama and comedy with this, and a fine sense of character breadth. It is something of a shame, then, that he didn’t get the opportunity to direct another rough ‘n’ tumble adventure yarn.
Part Disney wilderness flick a la Swiss Family Robinson, part Beverly Hillbillies, part comedy Western, part nature-fights-back horror, The Night of the Grizzly has so much going on under its Stetson that you feel as though you’re watching several movies all rolled into one. Either that or a massively condensed ensemble drama series – something that its director would go on to achieve a lot of success with in his later career. But this gets around any sense of the slapdash, or the shoehorned-in by virtue of being nothing but prime-time, exuberant top-flight entertainment in the grand old traditional fashion of the Saturday afternoon matinee. That it combines comedy with excellent character work, mean and moody moments of intimidation and slaughter, and a genuine sense of family values in the face of tough, backbreaking times means that you get more than your money’s worth.
The Night of the Grizzly is damn fine entertainment for a damn good night in. It comes courtesy of the treasure-trove at Olive Films and appears as a Region A release.
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