Retro-Fright: Grizzly (1976)

Big bear goes for the throat

DIRECTOR: William Girdler

CAST: Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel

PLOT: Huge grizzly lashes out at environmentally unfriendly humans

3 Knives


Man, let me tell you something, if you don’t already know: The when-animals-attack variety of horror, in my admittedly limited experience, is a touch-and-go sort of thing. From what I can tell, the genre hasn’t turned out just a helluva lot of quality stuff.

Then again, my favored-from-childhood genre, my beloved slasher film, would be indicted for being less than prolific in turning out the good stuff. I’m sure nature-strikes-back fans have their passionate arguments for this genre. Truth be told, there are a lot of turds in the slasher genre – which doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of good ones, too – just so you know I’m not throwing stones from the porch of my glass house.

There have been some pretty good efforts in the amok wildlife arena, and some interesting, if not excessively good, examples, as well. I suppose I owe mention to Hitchcock’s The Birds as a classic, ultra-quality example. As opposed to the much later and highly questionable sequel directed by Alan Smithee. For those not in the know, that’s the cinematic pseudonym director’s use when they don’t want their name on a piece of celluloid.

I haven’t seen the second Birds film but I can’t imagine Hitchcock isn’t rolling in his grave. Or, perhaps, chuckling.

“Smithee” has also been responsible for the likes of cumbersome but bizarrely fascinating 80s horror parody Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh and the fourth film in the Hellraiser franchise, Bloodline. Kevin Yeager yanked his name and replaced it with the notorious fake I.D. after post-production tinkering altered the film in ways contrary to Yeager’s vision for the movie.

Happily, Smithee is not behind GRIZZLY. Also happily, GRIZZLY is one of the better examples of nature lashing out at ecologically irresponsible man. (I’m not taking sides, so please refrain from angry comments. I’m merely denoting the nature of the cinematic beast, as it were.)

Prophecy, penned by David Seltzer (The Omen), also had a big bear, a mutant one. So that’s potentially more interesting than just a regular big bear, but GRIZZLY early on outstrips its badass bear competition, even if it is arguably a less complex approach to the material. (Trivia hounds, the man in the mutant bear suit in Prophecy is none other than Tom McLoughlin, director of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives! No shit.)

Given that GRIZZLY is basically eco-horror by way of vicious varmint, built on a template similar to that of the slasher. The high action of the film consists of a series of predator-stalks-prey sequences (just like slasher films) with lots of POV shots (ditto). There is a healthy number of women in the body count; this, too, aligns with stalker film structure.

Really, the parallels do not a hard argument make and I doubt many would care to disagree. I suspect the film’s application of a slasher type mode to non-slasher material made this eco-fright fest more palatable to a long-time slasher nut like me. Instead of machetes slashing across the screen, it’s a sharp-clawed bear paw. The bloodied and mutilated victims my fellow slasher fanatics will already be familiar with.

Meanwhile, as the big bastard of a bear rampages across the countryside, none other than horror icon Christopher George is on the prowl, one apex predator after another. I’m glad to report that Richard Jaeckel (Black Moon Rising) is also present and accounted for.

GRIZZLY isn’t profound but it’s not stupid, either, though I honestly expected a degree of dumbness that pleasantly surprised me by not showing up for the gig. It’s a well-crafted nature-bites-back flick with what would later be standard slasher structure. Truthfully, GRIZZLY anticipates the bulk of the slasher genre. While Peeping Tom and Psycho predicted it and Texas Chain Saw Massacre confirmed it, the slasher film really didn’t get kicking but good until Halloween and Friday the 13th lit the fuse on the beast that wouldn’t stumble to a crawl for nearly a decade. (Even so, it made a healthy resurgence with Scream, et. al.)

Of course, I would be most sorely remiss in failing to mention the ultimate influence behind GRIZZLY: Spielberg’s Jaws. I’ve never been a huge fan of Jaws, or most of Spielberg’s early to mid works, but Jaws is a popular and beloved film and objectively I must admit there is quality to it even if it doesn’t suit my tastes. (I actually like GRIZZLY better.) Jaws was so popular, in fact, that it warranted a number of coat-tail riders. All sorts of mutated (or not) beasties came out of the woodworks. (Christopher George even follows in Roy Scheider’s footsteps, spending as much time fighting complacent bureaucrats as he does bear-hunting.)

GRIZZLY actually seems to be one of the better ones. I’m always happy to be pleasantly surprised. It’s a too rare occurrence in genre films, and, honestly, movies in general.

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