Tuesday 15 March 2011

Grizzly (1976)

Director: William Girdler
Stars: Christopher George, Andrew Prine and Richard Jaeckel

Opening with an message that manages to combine environmentalism with American patriotism without seeming remotely forced, this film does look gorgeous from moment one, the vistas of Clayton, GA being very pleasing to the eye. The music is far too chirpy though, this Jaws rip-off sounding rather like an episode of Little House on the Prairie. Sure, it gets a little sinister when we switch to bear vision but not much. There's a vague attempt to emulate those famous John Williams da dum notes, but it all sounds much more like the bear is going to break through the trees to do si do with the inevitable jovial young female campers than roar in a subdued fashion and smack his bitches up. I use that term deliberately because director William Girdler does attempt to keep his film's monster hidden for a while by only allowing his paws to be visible. Unfortunately that makes it look like he has a penchant for bitch slapping.

Even from its earliest scenes Grizzly plays like a cheap B movie version of Jaws and that's really what it is. Its biggest success is that it got there before all the other cheap B movie versions of Jaws, of which there were many, and its next biggest success is that it follows the story closely. The film is capable, given those caveats, certainly much better than later rip-offs like Tentacles, but that doesn't mean it doesn't pale in comparison. Taking the Roy Scheider role is Christopher George who would have been good as Michael Kelly, the ranger in charge of this national park, if this had been a TV movie, but he's no competition for Scheider. Similarly Andrew Prine isn't bad at all as Don Stober, helicopter pilot, but compared to Robert Shaw, he's a nonentity. As Arthur Scott, the local naturalist who knows every bear in these here woods personally, Richard Jaeckel does come a little closer to Richard Dreyfuss, especially early on, but still falls short of the mark.
It's Scott who gets to explain to his disbelieving colleagues what they're facing, of course. Most of the bears in these woods are brown bears, but this one's a grizzly. Most grizzlies are 7 feet tall. This one is more like 15 (18 in the tagline) and weighs over 2,000 pounds. Scott can tell that from claw marks on trees, though I wondered how he could know so much about every bear in the forest but not know that there's even a grizzly out there. After the two campers, this grizzly takes out Ranger Gail, which I was happy about because she just couldn't stop grinning. Vicki Johnson had the Susan Backlinie role from Jaws, tasked with stripping down to her underwear to frolic in a stream and wait for the predator to come and get her. The bear gets more and more daring and we gradually get to see more and more of her, though unfortunately Teddy, the largest bear in captivity at the time, is too much of what her name suggests to be truly scary.

She wasn't that cuddly, of course, as eleven foot grizzlies are dangerous even when friendly. Unfortunately the camera crew couldn't get many fear inspiring angles and the director couldn't build enough suspense to make it all work. It doesn't help that Teddy looks much more like a Gentle Ben type than a bloodthirsty killer, and it helps even less that regardless how many victims she takes down, she never seems to get any blood on her at all. To be fair, there are some good shots of her roar, acquired through throwing marshmallows into Teddy's mouth and then holding another out for her to reach for. She also has some presence, as we discover when we realise how little attention we're giving to the arguments between the three leads. She would return for Girdler's follow up film, 1977's The Day of the Animals, and she sired Bart the Bear, who appeared in The Clan of the Cave Bear and Legends of the Fall, among others.
I've probably sounded negative in this review thus far and I should try to find a balance because this isn't a bad film, it's just not a particularly good one. It can't even hope to escape comparison with Jaws because it steals from it ruthlessly, setting into motion a whole slew of rip-offs that got generally worse and worse as time went by. There are some differences, not least where the three lead characters end up, but mostly it's a pretty close remake that merely transplants the monster onto dry land and into the woods. Compared to Jaws it sucks, but compared to what came along in its wake, it's a capable enough picture. The actors are better than the script, the music and certainly the effects, all three being solid and dependable names, reuniting six years after they had all played supporting roles in the John Wayne film Chisum. Grizzly didn't hurt their careers, turning a $750,000 budget into a record breaking $39m take for an indie picture.

In fact both George and Jaeckel returned a year later for The Day of the Animals, again produced by Edward L Montoro, who also wrote the film with a vague Night of the Living Dead approach to nature's revenge movies. Montoro would go onto more overt rip offs, like the Italian Great White, which he distributed Stateside before being sued out of theatres. Eventually he stripped a million dollars from his production company, Film Ventures International, and disappeared. This was his most successful picture. A direct sequel, Grizzly II: The Predator, was shot in Hungary in 1983 but not released and it remains unavailable to this day, though a workprint is circulating on the net. While an unreleased sequel to a blockbuster ripoff is hardly likely to be any good, this particular one features a cast that makes it notable whatever the quality: not just Charlie Sheen, but Laura Dern, George Clooney, Louise Fletcher, John Rhys-Davies and Charles Cyphers, among others.

Stars aside, the cast of this film is predominantly made up of a number of Clayton locals, who do bring some authenticity to their roles but hardly shine as actors. One of the first pair of victims is the mayor's daughter, so it would seem that everyone joined in the film being shot in their neck of the woods. Nobody gets a part worth speaking of though, even the real supporting cast lost in the mix. The love interest for Kelly is Allison Corwin, a photographer who's spending time at her father's lodge, but it fizzles quickly and she vanishes from the film. The most obvious character beyond the three leads and the bear is Charley Kittridge, the stereotypical greedy politician who keeps the park open, lets the hunters in and wants everyone else's ass. A very two dimensional character, losing a tough argument to Kelly emasculates him and he fades too. Watch the bear with a few beers, though, and you won't worry about the rest. On that front, this is a success.

1 comment:

jimmie t. murakami said...

I cant believe its over 30 years since Girdler snuffed it in that helicopter crash in the Phillipines while scouting for movie locations. I think he would have become one of the greatest genre film-makers of all time. By the way, i actually genuinely think that Grizzly is a better film than Jaws which i always thought was one of the most ludicrously over-rated films of the 70`s.