Grizzly. What can I say that isn’t on the poster? It declares, “18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!” If that’s not something that catches your eye, you’re definitely not in the audience for this film.
After Jaws was such an enormous hit, two things happened: the summer blockbuster tradition was born and, for a brief time, movies with killer animals were all the rage. Among these knockoff films were Piranha and, of course, Grizzly. And they don’t come much more knockoff-y (is that a word?) than Grizzly, which lifted the template of Jaws almost whole and hit theaters less than a year after Jaws was released. The tactic worked, too: Grizzly made $39 million off a budget of less than a million dollars. That’s good return on investment.
As you may have guessed from the title, Grizzly is about a grizzly bear. A really big grizzly bear. A really big, man-eating grizzly bear. A grizzly bear that might not even be a grizzly as we understand them, but some kind of prehistoric throwback.
We begin not in a tranquil seaside resort town, but an unnamed national park. The movie never actually tells us where this park is located, but the film was shot in Georgia and there are some southern accents being tossed around, so we can infer a little. I’m not aware of there ever having been grizzly bears in Georgia, but I’m no bear expert. The park is just starting out its prime hiking/camping season and park ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George) is on the job. He’s just a regular guy with a burgeoning romance with the daughter of a local restauranteur and he wants this year to be just as smooth sailing as all the years before it.
Things get bloody very quickly as two women camping in one of the higher, more remote areas of the park are attacked and killed by the titular grizzly. What bears they know of are at even higher elevations and not prone to attacking people, so there’s much confusion over the killings. Kelly enlists the help of a naturalist — we’re never sure if he works for the National Park Service or not — named Scotty (Richael Jaeckel) to figure out where the animal is lurking and how to neutralize it.
If you see already the parallels between Chief Brody and Matt Hooper in Jaws, you’re not imagining things. Grizzly even gets its own quasi-Quint in the form of a war-veteran helicopter pilot played by Andrew Prine. Prine’s pilot gets a lot of screen time, which gives the filmmakers the excuse to do a lot of aerial photography of the park. It’s a very pretty park full of dense forest, but these sequences are really just padding of the sort every low-budget film employs.
The attacks continue as the grizzly works its way down from the mountains and closer to a populated area. It has a particular affinity for women, which fulfills the exploitation-movie requirement that women be primarily objects of lust or violence. The aforementioned romance between Kelly and the restauranteur’s daughter looks like it’s going somewhere for a while, but then is jettisoned in favor of bear-hunting scenes.
A Jaws knockoff would not be complete without an authority figure putting people in peril because of his shortsightedness. In this case it’s the Park Supervisor who vastly underestimates the danger the grizzly poses, first proposing merely to move campers out of the mountains while leaving the campers below in place, and then refusing to close the park when even the campers at lower elevations start getting snacked on. Naturally he and Kelly knock heads, and though it’s all very reminiscent of what we’ve seen before, I will say that Kelly’s dislike for his boss reads a lot more violently than does Chief Brody’s for the mayor of Amity Island.
You might think that Grizzly is a total waste of time, given that it primarily hits the same narrative beats as Jaws, and I can’t totally dispel that notion. There is, however, a certain charm about the way the movie goes about doing its ripoff routine. Part of it’s due to the utter shamelessness of it all; you can enjoy picking out all the parts that are lifted from Jaws and make a game of it. The film’s other appeal derives from its exploitation roots. Jaws was a pretty serious movie, despite the fun factor, and reserved its violence and gore for when it would be the most effective. Grizzly, on the other hand, just flings it all at the screen whenever it can, and while it’s rated PG it’s really quite gory and over-the-top.
So I would be lying if I said Grizzly wasn’t at least a little bit fun. I found I enjoyed the performances of Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel (less so Andrew Prine), and I really got to liking Jaeckel’s character, Scotty. There’s a scene fairly late in the movie involving Scotty that’s both scary and funny and is easily the best single moment in the film.
The over-the-topness of Grizzly really picks up when the search for the grizzly begins in earnest. It’s also when we start seeing footage of a real grizzly bear and not just POV shots and a stuffed “grizzly” arm. The filmmakers get a decent performance out of the bear as it does stuff like tearing down a watchtower holding a near-defenseless park ranger, or running away from the helicopter, but here’s the thing: it looks like a regular old bear. This thing is supposed to be huge, and while the grizzly they use was the largest in captivity at the time, it’s no fifteen-to-eighteen-foot monster.
In addition, you can’t help but laugh at how borderline ridiculous Grizzly becomes in the final act. At one point our heroes are loading up the helicopter with heavy ordnance, since rifles have proven ineffective. Among the weapons: a bazooka and a flamethrower! I won’t ask where that stuff came from.
How much you enjoy Grizzly will depend largely on your ability to pick the good stuff out of the bad stuff. As I have discussed, there’s a goodly amount of bad stuff, but there are some gems to be found, even if they are to be enjoyed ironically. I’ve read a lot of people’s thoughts on Grizzly since I watched it and many folks who saw the movie as kids in the wake of Jaws have fond memories. In the spring of 1976 it might not have been the second coming of the great white, but Grizzly had the warm glow of familiarity about it. I kind of wish I’d seen it then.