Between 1976 and 1983, approximately 80% of movies were rip-offs of JAWS . It was the DIE HARD on a… of its day. Just about every animal that could kill you, and some that couldn’t, got their own movie. Aquatic creatures were popular, killer whales, piranha, alligators, other sharks, manta rays (which have no teeth), giant octopus, etc. Land animals and assorted insects got a piece of the action, too. It was a great bit of fear mongering. No matter where you were on the planet, some animal wanted to kill you. Some of these movies, if not all, had merit. One of the most meritorious was 1976’s jaws in conjunction with claws slaughterfest, GRIZZLY.
A fifteen foot grizzly bear is snacking on hikers in a geographically unspecified National Park. Hard-nosed park ranger Michael Kelly, played by perpetually hard-nosed Christopher George, is out to stop him. He is aided by Don Strober, a pacifist helicopter pilot, and Arthur Scott, a naturalist who likes to wear deer skins and crawl on all fours. As the bodies, or bits of bodies, pile up, the hunters take more desperate measures to bring the killer bear down. Can they succeed before it eats every single person in the park?
Despite its wild divergence in style and quality, GRIZZLY follows the JAWS floorplan fairly closely. Christopher George is a more rugged and angrier version of Sheriff Brodie. Andrew Pine has the vehicle (helicopter instead of boat), so he’s kind of like Quint. Richard Jaeckel’s batshit naturalist is more of a combination of Quint and Hooper, due to his into-the-jaws-of-the-beast obsessiveness. Instead of the Mayor, there’s the Park Supervisor, who doesn’t want to “blow this out of proportion” and close the park. He likes to give judgmental speeches and actually calls ranger Kelly a “maverick”. Like the Mayor, he has the same stunned and stammering moment of defeat when he realizes he gravely underestimated things. There are drunken hunters instead of drunken fishermen who mess things up. There’s even a variation on Quint’s Indianapolis speech. This movie is a totally different animal, though, and not just because it features a totally different animal.
First off, this movie is rated PG. Now, so was JAWS, which is hard enough to believe, but GRIZZLY is ten times more violent than the shark movie. The very first bear attack has a severed arm flying through the air and a victim-cam shot that probably inspired Sam Rami to do EVIL DEAD. Faces are slashed, torsos are ripped open, unfriendly bear hugs are administered. For the most part, these are not quick cuts. The camera likes to linger. When a photographer trips over a partially buried body, she doesn’t just land in a puddle of blood, her whole hand is submerged. It’s a kiddy pool worth of blood. The most famous scene is when the bear sneaks up on an adorable six year old boy (holding a fluffy rabbit, none the less). We learn that in the aftermath of the attack, the boy has lost a leg. This is cleverly implied by showing a six year old boy on the ground with his fucking leg ripped off. Now, I’ve seen a lot of kids killed in a lot of movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen shit like that. I know I haven’t seen it in a movie with the same rating as CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS. I am surprised every time I see this movie by just how violent and bloody it is. I somehow filter it down in my memory, because of the rating. It can’t be that bad, right? But it is. At one point, the grizzly attacks a man on horseback. It knocks the horse’s entire head off! Rated PG, no different than MADAGASCAR. Practically the same film, really. Fun day at the matinee for all the youngsters. This leads me to two possible conclusions. Either kids today are complete pussies, or what the fuck were our parents thinking?!? After seeing JAWS at ten years old, I never went into more than eight inches of water at the beach. If I had seen GRIZZLY as a kid, I never would have gone near trees again.
Some JAWS rip-offs try to produce a little sympathy for the animal. The beast is just part of nature, doing what it was born to do. It’s us humans who have provoked it by messing with its habitat or depleting its food supply or destroying the ozone layer or something. Not in this case. This bear is a complete asshole. There is no reason it should be attacking campers other than that they are tasty and fun to take apart. I don’t think it’s even hungry most of the time. A group of drunken hunters finds a bear cub and uses it as bait. Instead of saving the cub, the grizzly just eats it. It’s a dick even to other bears.
Just like the bear in THE REVENANT, it likes to mess with you, too. When it gets ahold of [SPOILER] Scott, the batshit naturalist, it rips him to shreds but leaves him buried alive in a shallow grave (so it’s like the bear and Tom Hardy in one). A little while after it leaves, Scott regains consciousness. He slowly and painfully pulls himself from the grave. After a huge effort, Scott turns around and the grizzly is just standing there, staring at him. It’s a little hard to tell, since it’s a bear and all, but I’m pretty sure it was grinning.
The grizzly is such a coldblooded murderer that the film is practically a slasher film. For the first half of the movie, its victims are women. The movie uses a bear POV shot when it’s stalking its prey, like it’s an ursine Michael Myers. It’s even breathing heavy when it watches them from behind the trees. The whole thing is kind of pervy. It goes so far as to kill a woman in a tent who’s preparing to have sex, so it’s one of those hypocritically Puritanical killers, too. Sex equals mauling. It even spies on a skinny dipper. There’s no nudity, obviously. This is a PG movie, for heaven’s sake. She’s still in her underwear when the stream runs red with her blood.
It’s also good at springing up from out of nowhere, which is impressive for a fifteen foot tall, two thousand pound bear.
The bear is considerably smarter than any of the humans, individually or collectively. It continually alludes, outmaneuvers, and ambushes its hunters. Not that it’s really much of a challenge. Christopher George is slightly more competent than in PIECES, but not by much. The other rangers are even more useless. One of them was the skinny dipper who decided to “soak her feet” in the middle of a goddamned killer bear hunt. Another one can’t figure out how to shoot straight down while the grizzly knocks down his lookout tower.
One of my favorite oddball scenes is right after the first attack. A radio announcer encourages hikers to evacuate the area, and literally dozens of backpackers come running down the hill like they were on fire. The only thing that was missing was a Three Stooges “whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo-whoo” sound effect. I’m surprised the grizzly wasn’t waiting at the bottom of the hill with a napkin tied around his neck.
In the end, Christopher George and laid back helicopter pilot Andrew Prine are hunting the bear with a flamethrower and a bazooka. Not the kind of equipment normally issued to park rangers, in my opinion. Smoky would not approve. To be fair, though, the only alternative at that point would be calling in an airstrike. Considering the grizzly takes out the helicopter, that might not even have worked. For a second, I thought they might lob off the bear’s head with the helicopter blades, but it was just a tease. The actual demise of the grizzly is more of a clumsy—yet still awesome—take on the end of JAWS. Christopher George can’t get it together enough to get out a quippy one-liner, though. He seems disappointed about that.
Director William Girdler followed this up with DAY OF THE ANIMAL, also starring Christopher George and featuring the same bear actor (but playing much less of an asshole). The main villain in that one, weirdly, was Leslie Nielsen. He also did the completely insane Exorcist/Star Wars rip-off, THE MANITOU. Unfortunately, he died in a helicopter accident while scouting locations in the Philippines a couple of years later. He left a proud legacy of traumatizing a generation of children who caught this on afternoon TV, and of even more whose parents look at the rating and think, “Can’t be any worse than DESPICABLE ME.”