22 August 2009

Movie Review: Grizzly

Grizzly (1976)
Directed by William Girdler. Starring Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Joan McCall, Joe Dorsey.

There is Jaws, there are Jaws imitators, there are Jaws copycats… and then there’s Grizzly.

In the sub-genre of Jaws rip-offs, a rich vein of crappy horror/adventure filmmaking that has been our constant companion since Spielberg’s Great White classic of 1975, none gets more attention for the sheer audacity of its plot-Xeroxing than Grizzly. The film was almost titled Claws fer’ crying out loud! It might be possible to write a critique of Grizzly and ignore the Jaws connections, but I doubt it. The hit shark movie is the reason that director William Girdler got the script into production; Jaws is the source of Grizzly’s existence. It is impossible to watch the film and not think of Jaws at almost every moment.

But is it an enjoyable Jaws-with-a-bear flick? Will it make you scream “Don’t Go into the National Park!”? It has undeniable drive-in movie pleasure, but most of the fun comes from ironic enjoyment, not genuine thrills. Unlike the far superior Alligator, the movie doesn’t know how to play the unintentional irony, and the script and performances can’t compensate. Grizzly is mostly toothless.

The late William Girdler was a veteran of low-budget exploitation fare. He never saw himself as an artist but a professional: it was his job to shoot a movie that would return the backer’s money. And he usually achieved this modest goal. He certainly nailed it with Grizzly, which was the highest-grossing independent feature of the year, making $39 million from a budget of $750,000 raised from Film Ventures International. Batman art legend Neal Adams created the stunning original poster artwork, which probably helped boost the film’s gross by at least $10 million.

I’ll get the shark-cleaning part of the plot out of the way. Our Sheriff Brody for the film is Michael Kelly (Christopher George), chief ranger of National Park. The National Park apparently, as a sign indicates. The Park Services must have felt too lazy to give the sprawling forest (shot in Clayton, GA) a specific name. Maybe back in the ‘70s there was only one national park, and I just imagined all that Teddy Roosevelt stuff.

An enormous bear starts slaying the backpackers crowding into the park—or at least the attractive female ones—and ranger Kelly needs the help of the Matt Hooper stand-in, naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel), who likes wandering the forests wearing bear and deer hides. Scott realizes that they have on their hands something far worse than a mother brown bear protecting cubs. He’s convinced they have a titanic grizzly coming down from the higher mountains and staking out territory. The standard bureaucratic villain, Park Supervisor Charley Kittridge (Joe Dorsey), won’t listen to him; instead of closing the beaches the National Park, Kittridge invites the press and overly-armed yahoos in for a celebrity bear hunt. This ersatz “Mayor of Amity” doesn’t have clear sleazy motivations, and his tangling with Kelly in his wood-paneled office shows the movie trying to overplay drama without a firm foundation.

There’s also a Quint character to complete the triumvirate of the three men who will go hunt the Great Beast when the bureaucrat at last Sees the Light. However, Don Strober (Andrew Prine) is Quint-lite: helicopter pilot, Vietnam vet, and hunter, he growls a bit about the procedure for tracking down the grizzly, but never swells into anything memorable. He’s bear-bait from his first appearance.

Strober does, however, give a monologue about grizzlies massacring Indians that’s meant to imitate the classic “Indianapolis Story” from Jaws. But it’s too short a speech, delivered too early in the hunt, and it isn’t personal to Strober, so it just washes over the audience without much of an impression. The problems with the speech are the general problems with the film—it’s distant and mechanical, hitting the notes it knows it has to hit from the Jaws playbook, but never delivering anything past that and often playing the notes in places where they don’t resonate.
[Insert famous Roy Scheider Line Here]
But the biggest trouble with Grizzly is that it contains meager suspense. The bear attacks come with rote regularity and no surprises. Girdler does his best with the limited means available to create the grizzly mayhem—POV shots, trained bear footage, puppet hands—but the scenes aren’t scary and never have a “wow” factor to make them memorable. The only bear mauling that stands out is the most outrageous: the grizzly tries to batter down a wooden ranger tower. The use of the real bear here is well done. However, the standard stalking scenes are nothing remarkable, and the POV shots indicate that the bear is walking around constantly on his hind legs and is twenty-five feet tall. The last half-hour, where the three heroes go on their expedition to kill the grizzly, builds in fits and starts, but the rocket-launcher finale is hilarious—and the most blatant Jaws moment in the whole production.

The human drama is ho-hum with dialogue to match. Kelly has a love interest in photographer Allison (Joan Macall), but this eventually tapers off into nothing. At least Allison is one of the few ideas in the script that wasn’t lifted straight from another movie. I also hoped for something more unexpected from an old-hand actor like Jaeckel, perhaps an odd slant on his naturalist who seems more at home in the wilds than anywhere else, but Jaeckel is strictly workmanlike with the loads of exposition he has to trot out about bears.

The most polished part of the production is the music score by Robert O. Ragland, who the credits very proudly tell us was conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London. The score’s sweep seems geared to make the movie feel less like a standard horror movie and more like a major studio epic—you know, more like, uhm, Jaws.

A sequel, Grizzly II: The Predator, was shot in 1983 in Hungary, with a then-unknown George Clooney in a supporting part. He would remain unknown, from this film at least, because a drain on funds shut the film down after principle photography, and the special effects were left unfinished. The movie has never been released, although a work print appeared in 2007. If anybody ever tries to finish the film and get it released, George Clooney will probably shell out ever cent he has to stop it.

In a weird footnote to Grizzly, producer Edward L. Montoro vanished in 1984 with a million dollars of Film Ventures International’s money and hasn’t been seen since. “The speculation was that he went to Mexico, but that was never confirmed,” former FVI employee Jim Bertges said in an interview. “I had heard that there had been an earthquake in Mexico not long after he left and he called his son, Michael, to let him know he was OK, but that’s all I ever heard.” He’s probably hanging with D. B. Cooper somewhere and swapping stories about meeting grizzlies in the woods.