Written by: Harvey Flaxman, David Shelton
Directed by: William Girdler
Starring: Christopher George, Andrew Prine, and Richard Jaeckel
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Bears don't eat people!"
"This one did."
"This one did."
Any discussion with Grizzly inevitably has to start with Jaws, a comparison its own producers guaranteed when they marketed their killer bear movie as boasting “the most dangerous jaws in the land.” Typically, this conversation is framed around Grizzly being a shameless knock-off of Spielberg’s immortal classic, but I would counter that the latter’s reputation hinged at least in part on the former. We know now that Jaws inspired (and continues to inspire) countless imitators, but it took the right movie at the right time to convince the world that audiences would even bother to see low-rent takes on such a masterpiece. Because let’s be real: Spielberg forever altered the landscape of the killer animal movie by making one so damn good that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever topping it. But that didn’t stop people from trying, nor did it stop audiences from enjoying these attempts, something Grizzly proved less than a year after Jaws when audiences made it one of the most profitable independent movies of all-time. Grizzly isn’t just a Jaws knock-off; it’s more accurate to say that it’s the definitive knock-off, the one that stripped away any of the highfalutin Hollywood pretense and simply delivered a giant bear ripping people apart because sometimes that’s all you really need. I see Spielberg’s measured, suspenseful, character-driven approach, and I raise him William Girder and crew just going completely nuts down in Georgia.
This is where a rouge grizzly is terrorizing a state park, much to the dismay of Chief Ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George). His supervisor (Joe Dorsey) doesn’t care enough to actually shut down the park, though; in fact, he tells Kelly that it’s actually his fault anyway since he was responsible for removing all of the bears from the area. His only concern is eliminating this menace as soon as possible, which is bad news for the folks congregating to the area completely unaware of the 18-foot bear mauling campers to death. Luckily, Kelly does have the support of ex-marine helicopter pilot Don Stober (Andrew Prine) and naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel), so the trio band together to track down and destroy the grizzly before it wipes out the entire campsite.
Even the most cursory of glances at Grizzly reveals how much it owes to Jaws. It’s like a rough sketch that omits the crucial stuff—like suspense and character development—that make Jaws a classic, but that’s the raison d'être here: to boil the killer animal movie down to its most basic, primal urges of gore and schlock. As such, the Jaws elements are more like a loose, rickety frame that upholds the pretense that Grizzly even has much of a story at all. There’s the suggestion of one, maybe, in the conflict that emerges between Kelly and his greedy, negligent boss, but even this feels like obligatory copycatting that only keeps the gory floodgates propped open. Other faint echoes of Jaws linger, like a scene where some boneheads botch an ill-advised attempt to bait the bear, or a horrific sequence that leaves a little boy mauled to the verge of death, all of it reaffirming the sense that you’re watching a copy that’s been hastily scrawled to only retain “the good stuff.”
Even the characters only vaguely match their analogs in Jaws. Obviously, Kelly is the Brody surrogate, the man of the law just trying to do the right thing in the face of a corrupt superior. Scott dresses like Hooper but often carries himself like Quint, a grizzled hunter who’ll stop at nothing to catch the beast. Honestly, Stober is kind of the third wheel in the equation: he’s basically “Hooper drives the boat, chief” write large. Stober pilots the helicopter. It’s what he does. None of these guys have quite the texture of their more richly-developed counterparts, if only because the brisk runtime doesn’t afford them as much. Still, the performances are sturdy enough to keep Grizzly upright: George is nothing if not a consistent, workmanlike presence capable of infusing Kelly with a righteous sense of justice.
His rapport with Prine has a good old boy charm to it, which contributes a little southern-fried twang to Grizzly as they crack bad jokes and swap tall tales. Grizzy’s version of the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech involves Stober regaling his buddies with an old story about a bear ravaging the Native tribes that once inhabited the lands. It ends with Scott expressing his disbelief and Stober half-heartedly agreeing—“unless you happen to be one of them Indians!” We’re a long way from Robert Shaw’s lyricism, folks. Jaeckel is the best of the bunch here, if only because he’s the sole character that feels kind of lived-in. He doesn’t try to ape Quint’s bravado, choosing instead to play Scott as a rugged, soft-spoken mountain man who’s hunting the bear less for personal glory and more because it’s simply the right thing to do. Scott’s the most fascinating character in a movie that otherwise doesn’t have much time to really bother with characters, so it’s a testament to Jaeckel’s talents that he leaves such an impression.
Any qualms about half-hearted character work or the virtually nonexistent plot might mean something if Grizzly didn’t completely rip ass in all of the ways it’s supposed to. No, it’s not exquisitely or meticulously crafted to generate suspense or draw viewers in with captivating characters and drama; it is, however, exactly what you want from a killer bear movie. It never strays too far from its goal of stuffing as much carnage as possible into its 90 minutes, and it just absolutely moves because it has little use for downtime. Say what you want about its base aspirations, but Grizzly is a masterclass of low-budget schlock movie pacing: again, it’s a killer animal movie that prioritizes all of the good bits, meaning it scatters human body parts and horse heads with reckless abandon. It’s among the goriest, nastiest PG-rated movies ever made at that, and I can only imagine the aghast parents who took this kids to this thing, only to subject them to a shot of bear ripping a boy’s leg clean off. In true William Girdler fashion, Grizzly goes all-in with astounding displays of mayhem, using actual bears and stuntmen in suits to create convincing (if not increasingly outrageous) sequences. Among the most impressive finds the grizzly razing a fire lookout tower to the ground, crushing a park ranger to death in the process.
Could movies aspire for greater heights? Sure, but Grizzly isn’t about reaching such heights. It’s a roughshod, often inelegant piece of filmmaking that was churned out on the cheap to cash in on a popular title, making it a prime example of brazen exploitation. However, it’s also one of the absolute best examples, if only because Girdler was a master at mounting such quick-and-dirty productions that elevate action, effects, gore, and schlock above all else. His untimely demise in a helicopter crash in 1978 robbed us of a long, fruitful career that no doubt held even more promise of gonzo cinema. His legacy is likely to be forever tied to Grizzly, and one could certainly do worse because it should actually be considered the gold standard for this kind of movie. If anything, Jaws was an outlier, a movie so good that it rightfully transcended its genre trappings; it’s almost unfair to compare anything to it, much less the type of movies this particular sub-genre often tries to pull off with shoestring budgets.
Grizzly proved that it is possible for these movies to be thrilling anyway, and this is its greatest triumph. No matter what the past decade or so has told us about low-budget nature-run-amok movies, they don’t have to be “so bad they’re good” or laced with so much irony that you’re never meant to take it seriously. Grizzly would like a word with such a mentality, and then it would like to shoot it with a bazooka. The narrative has been misguided all of these years: it’s not so much that Grizzly is stuck in the shadow of Jaws—it’s that all of the other imitators should be considered stuck in the shadow of Grizzly, and any attempt to outrun that shadow out of embarrassment can’t be trusted.
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