Friday, October 17, 2014

The Girdler Guide: Grizzly (1976)

The first shot of William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976) is actually a really good one. The film opens with a lovely, wide-angle establishing shot of the natural forest.

The shot is well-composed, with an imposing mountain in the distance, slightly off-center. Just as you settle in for a viewing -- pondering the natural beauty of the environment -- the unexpected buzz of a helicopter in flight suddenly and loudly interrupts the tranquility, and the craft jets into the frame.

The pastoral setting is thus shattered by the presence of the helicopter, and this transgression is followed up by the dire warning of its pilot -- played by Andrew Prine -- that if man keeps encroaching on the wild, he will “destroy the natural beauty” of forests just like this one. 

Girdler’s inaugural shot cannily demonstrates that this brand of destruction is already occurring, and that’s the perfect note on which to commence a revenge of nature film. Especially one about a killer grizzly bear coming down the side of a mountain even as vacationing hitchhikers and campers insist on encroaching from the other end, probing ever higher up the same mountain. 

Bear and man will meet in the middle…for terror!

The best-looking of Girdler’s films so far – and by far -- Grizzly (1976) proved a huge box-office hit in the year of America’s bicentennial, in part because it was the first “when animals attack” movie to arrive after Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws (1975).  The movie was not a critical success, however, and reviewers such as the one at Time Magazine dubbed the Girdler film “an idea-for-idea, character-for-character, and sometimes even shot-for-shot knock-off of Jaws.” 

That assertion, alas, is accurate. 

Last week in the Girdler Guide, I noted that Girdler is often remembered as the king of the rip-offs for his cinematic variations on Psycho (Three on a Meathook), The Exorcist (The Manitou) and, yes, Jaws (Grizzly), but really, Grizzly is the most on-the-nose and derivative knock-off of that bunch.  You can go up and down the line in the film -- from narrative, to characters, to compositions -- and see how Spielberg’s great white shark film casts a heavy shadow over virtually every aspect of this work.

“You know…bears got patterns.”

In an American national park, Ranger Kelly (Christopher George) and his men and women are concerned about the number of campers and back-packers visiting during the season. 

When two female campers are found ripped apart and mauled to death by a grizzly bear, Kelly realizes that the tourists are in terrible danger. The administrator at the park, however, refuses to close the forest to visitors. After more attacks, Kelly prevails and plots a strategy to hunt the grizzly, which has demonstrated murderous and even cannibalistic tendencies.

With the help of a pilot, Don (Prine) and a naturalist, Scotty (Richard Jaekel) Kelly heads out into the deep woods by helicopter to face the monsters on its home territory

“That’s all we need: a killer bear on the loose.”

The DVD version of Grizzly I watched for this review came complete with a good, informative documentary about the making of the film. In the doc, the project’s writers good-naturedly noted that they had not intended the film to be a Jaws rip-off, and that, if you pay attention to the script, Grizzly is not really a Jaws knock-off at all.  They are so charming and informative that you really want to believe that assertion.

But allow me to tally, just briefly, the various points in common shared by Jaws and Grizzly.

The heroic triumvirate: Both films feature three male heroes who “bond” over the hunting of a wild, dangerous animal.  In Jaws, the triumvirate consists of the law-enforcement official, Brody (Roy Scheider), the man of science, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the local man, Quint (Robert Shaw) who captains a boat and is a veteran of World War II.  In Grizzly, we have the ranger, Kelly, the naturalist, Scotty, and Don, who captains a helicopter and is a veteran of Vietnam. Also note that both Quint and Don stand-out by virtue of their local accents, New England/Southern, respectively.

The over-sized nemesis is more than mere animal: In Jaws, we meet a giant great white shark who is almost supernaturally clever, and efficient, out-smarting its human hunters at every turn, and evading both capture and death. 

In Grizzly, we likewise get a very large, very intelligent bear instead. And as one character notes, this giant man-eater “seems to know what we’re thinking,” meaning that it is not, as Yogi might say, your average bear.  There is the implicit suggestion that the bear here, like the shark in Jaws, may actually be a supernatural monster.

Economic/professional interests are imperiled by the presence of the intruder:  In Jaws, the beach town of Amity thrives on summer business, and so the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) argues that “the beaches stay open.” He even covers up a coroner report to assure that the beaches stay open.

In Grizzly, the park administrator similarly refuses to act responsibly in order to save people. “There’s no need to close the park,” he insists, despite the presence of the vicious predator. When bear attacks keep occurring, however, and bad press threatens to overwhelm the park, he is forced to change his mind.

Local yokels: Sheriff Brody almost has a conniption fit in Jaws when amateur local fisher-men take to their boats, go out to sea, and start hunting the great white shark.  They get drunk, dynamite fish in the sea, and cause all sorts of problems for law enforcement

In Grizzly, rednecks put on their camo vests, grab their rifles and head into the woods to hunt the grizzly bear, threatening everybody in the process.  “Those clowns are going to shoot everything in sight,” Kelly complains, echoing Brody.

Naked or half-naked girls are delicious: In the first scene in Jaws, Chrissy’s midnight skinny-dip turns sour when the great white shark attacks and kills her. Early in Grizzly, a half-naked camper, also a young woman, frolics in a waterfall until a grizzly attack turns the mountain waters blood-red.

Children also make good lunches: In Jaws, little Alex Kitner gets killed by the great white, and his mother slaps Brody for allowing the beaches to stay open when he knew better.

In Grizzly, a little boy gets attacked by a bear (though “part” of him survives, according to Kelly), and the attack is proof that the park’s approach to the problem is not working. 

In both cases, the attack on the child stiffens the spine of the law-enforcement official, either Brody or Kelly. They commit themselves to the hunt, lest any other innocent (like a child) suffer.

Animal P.O.V.: Several shots in Jaws represent the subjective perspective of the great white shark as it hunts and stalks it unwitting victims. 

Likewise, Grizzly features a number of bear-attack style P.O.V. shots.

On the monster’s turf: Jaws culminates with a splendid third act in which the heroic triumvirate takes to the sea aboard Quint’s boat, the Orca, to hunt the monster.  The Orca is pulped in the ensuing clash, and Quint is killed. The law enforcement official, Brody, blows up the shark with a well-timed shot to a flammable gas tank. 

In Grizzly, the heroic triumvirate takes to the wooded mountain aboard Don’s helicopter.  The helicopter is pulped by the bear in the ensuing clash, and Don is killed. The law enforcement official, 
Kelly, blows up the Grizzly with a bazooka.''

Despite these many similarities, I must establish one fact: Grizzly looks absolutely great on DVD.  Frankly, I don’t remember the film looking so damn good when I watched it on VHS for a review in Horror Films of the 1970s

On this viewing, however, I was struck several times by the lovely photography, and the utter bluntness of the editing style. Several attacks are editing with lightning-fast “shock” cuts so that severed limbs, decapitated heads and other extremities fly across the frame. 

They may not be scary, but these moments are certainly…bracing.  Having watched Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook in recent weeks, I can happily and confidently assert that Grizzly looks prettier and much more professional than the previous films in the Girdler oeuvre.  In fact, I’ll go further.  I believe that Girdler did the best work anyone could reasonably expect on Grizzly with the script he had in hand, which -- clearly -- was highly derivative. 

When I look at a film like Three on a Meathook, I can detect how Girdler failed to execute it well, not filming enough close-up shots of the characters, for example, so that we could relate to them as people.  The opposite paradigm is at work here. Girdler actually executes the film well in terms of its exploitative content, but it’s difficult to leave behind, even for a moment, the fact that the film seems to ape Jaws with a near-religious fervor.

One other big difference between Jaws and Grizzly bears a mention.  Sharks are inherently scary on screen.  Bears…not so much. Sharks have soulless-seeming black eyes, razor-sharp fangs, and exposed, meaty gums. They hide beneath the roiling ocean surface, with only a jutting fin signifying their presence. They can break the ocean surface and then retreat beneath it suddenly, and seemingly anywhere at any time. 

But Teddy in Grizzly is a big, roly-poly, fuzzy animal with sleepy eyes. His stomach rolls jollily from side to side when he runs. And when he rears up on his hind legs, he looks like he wants to give you a hug, not rip you apart.

I’m not saying that I’d like to encounter a grizzly in the woods, or that it wouldn’t be terrifying to do so.  I’m talking about visual representations here. The bear just doesn’t transmit as some kind of hideous monster on screen and is thus a markedly less-effective “monster” than the shark in Jaws is.

Screening Grizzly this time, I also had more respect for the performances, especially those of Prine and George.  They are thoroughly professional here, and try to do more with their thin characters than merely ape the performances in Jaws.  Between Girdler’s occasionally tactless but fun visualizations and Prine’s good ole boy drawl, I must confess I felt more positively about Grizzly than I did when I last watched it in 2000. 

It’s still a rip-off of Jaws, through and through, but Grizzly has its moments. It may be a bad movie, but the film is an entertaining bad movie, and a good time-capsule of the Jaws craze that struck the nation in the mid-1970s. 


  1. Mama Katahdin would eat this grizzly up 5 days a week and twice on Saturday and Sunday.

  2. I recall reading a book at summer camp a couple years before this came out, but I'm unsure whether the two are related. The book was written from 2 points of view -- the bear's, and the humans'. In the book, the bear was hungry for some reason, and smelled food. Quite titillating to my adolescent self, what he smelled was a menstruating human female. So the bear treks for a long way to get to her. I recall that the bear had to climb some mountains, and broke a tooth on some ice (which made him even more mad).

    I also recall the humans' trying to figure out what the bear was thinking, then the next few pages would tell the reader what he was thinking.