Monday, 14 December 2009

Grizzly (1976)

How awesome are bears? Pretty awesome.

has the distinction of being one of the first Jaws rip-offs, landing in cinemas a little under a year after Spielberg's blockbuster. Apparently the script was written in 8 days, which is not surprising since they pretty much took the script for Jaws and replaced all instances of the word "shark" with "bear". It may be nakedly transparent in the aping of it's progenitor but it makes no attempt to conceal it's roots; the DVD cover (featuring sweet poster art by comic book legend Neal Adams) exclaims "Jaws with Claws!" Coming from this moral low-ground they have no qualms about spicing things up with blood and severed limbs. Awesome!

The movie begins with a (model) helicopter flying over a beautiful autumnal forest as Ranger Kelly (Christopher "Pieces" George) gives a lecture about the environment to a couple of bored-looking suits, who we never see again. After a montage of happy campers we cut to a couple of be-flannelled girls, returning to camp after an exhausting ten mile hike. Unfortunately they left their campfire burning the entire time and Smokey is pissed. One girl gets slashed to ribbons in a flurry of choppily edited stock footage, her arm going flying into the air. The other girl tries to hide in a wooden cabin but the bear tears it apart and kills her, stashing her body on the roof so it can drop down dramatically when Ranger Kelly comes to investigate. "Looks like this camper... had more than she could bear." YEEEEAAAH!!

They send out a few Park Rangers to try and find that darn bear, one of whom decides she's going to take a break and "soak her feet", which is code for stripping down to her underwear and swimming in the icy river. This flimsy pretext to show some skin angers the bear and he eats her too. The Park Rangers then put out a bear warning on the radio, causing campers to immediately start pouring out of the forest and running down the hill like there's free beer waiting for them at the bottom. The Park Supervisor (this movie's equivalent of the evil Mayor) isn't happy; he's hoping to be appointed to a corner office in Washington and a rampaging grizzly isn't going to look good on his record. He refuses to close down the park but Kelly isn't going to give up that easy because he's a maverick. We know this because the Park Supervisor tells him "You're a maverick, Kelly!" Oh, I hate that Park Supervisor. He's just so smug.

Kelly seeks the help of a naturalist named Scotty (Richard Jaeckel), and although he dresses more like a Quint, Scotty is clearly this film's Hooper. I quite liked this character, he is a crazy nature expert who studies animals by draping himself in furs and living among them like Timothy Treadwell. He suggests that the bear is over fifteen feet tall, weighs over two tonnes, and that he's descended from the pleistocene-era megafauna arctodus simus. Well, obviously. Kelly also enlists some help from a Vietnam vet helicopter pilot named Dan (Andrew Prine), the Quint equivalent. He even has a scary bear story echoing Quint's speech about the USS Indianapolis, but unfortunately it does not involve his platoon being attacked by VC bears in the jungles of Vietnam.

The most pointless character of all is Kelly's girlfriend Allison (Joan McCall). They take a few scenes to establish that she's an independent woman and a photographer, so you figure she's going to get into trouble and maybe help Kelly get some proof by taking photos of the bear. None of that happens, because about halfway through the film Kelly refuses to let her come out with him (bears can smell a vagina a mile off, drives them insane with rage) and she disappears for the rest of the film. As manly men they are born with the skills necessary to combat a two thousand pound grizzly; clearly the third act is no place for a woman.

The Park Supervisor also calls in a bunch of amateur hunters to take care of the bear, and I do mean amateur; when one of them is confronted with the bear he immediately drops his gun and runs. Later that night, three dimwitted hunters are startled by a bear cub and have the bright idea of using it as bait to lure out the grizzly. Of course, the ursine fiend outwits their trap by eating the cub. His hunger unsatisfied by that midnight snack, the bear goes on an insane rampage. One camper becomes bear chow when she decides to put on some perfume, which as we all know attracts bears and Jason Voorhees's. A local woman is eaten and her son's leg bitten off and the bear even tears down a ranger station. This is one hungry bear.

In a final attempt to find the beast, Kelly and Dan fly around in a helicopter while Scotty heads off on his own, claiming that he will be able to throw a rope around his neck and lead him into captivity. "I can look like him... I can smell like him... give me a chance!" he pleads. I admire his can-do attitude, but this bear is fifteen feet tall and weighs over two tonnes, I don't think Grizzly Man style shenanigans are going to cut it. Sure enough the grizzly shows up and decapitates his horse with a single blow. Scotty wakes up as leftovers in a shallow grave, apparently the ursine equivalent of Tupperware, but I guess the bear was just psyching him out because he shows up and eats him a few moments later.

Kelly and Dan's final battle with the bear is pretty entertaining, although there's a massive missed opportunity when the bear rears up to the perfect height for a chopper blade decapitation. Of course guns are completely useless and Dan soon finds himself in a fatal bear hug, but luckily he decided to bring along his old Vietnam War bazooka. This is a pretty common occurrence in films, Vietnam veterans having chests full of surplus heavy weapons. Did the Vietnam war have a take-home-what-you-don't-use policy? You can probably guess who comes out worse for wear after the bear-vs-bazooka climax, but the movie ends on a surprising bummer, with some sad music as Kelly wanders over to inspect his friend's corpse. Oh ursine behemoth, what hast though wrought?

All of the bear footage was realised using a captive grizzly, although at no point does the bear interact with any of the actors. Apparently they had a mechanical bear but somebody left it out in the rain, so they had to make do by editing together some reaction shots, brief snippets of a guy in a bear costume and the occasional fake bear arm (insert your own 2nd amendment joke here). Like Jaws, they also use a lot of bear POV shots, complete with theme song. They use a lot of careful editing and camera placement to try and make the bear seem bigger, but at no point does it seem anything close to it's purported fifteen feet.

This is a watchable effort by director William Girdler, but probably not his best. It doesn't even try to put an original spin on the formula, although to be fair Jaws rip-offs hadn't really become an established sub-genre yet. Grizzly was intended as a standalone rip-off. After this film was made the rights were sold to Mehahem Golan of Cannon films, who made a sequel in 1987 called called Predator: The Concert. Starring George Clooney, Charlie Sheen and Laura Dern, it was about a 20-foot bear that wreaks havoc at a cheesy 80s New Wave band's outdoor concert. Sounds pretty awesome, but unfortunately it has never seen wide release due to a bankruptcy case surrounding the first film. Until then, we'll always have Grizzly.

No comments: