Dir. William Girdler (1976)
A park ranger must save the park’s visitors from an 18-foot-tall grizzly bear that is on the rampage.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Have you ever been watching Jaws and say hey, what about those of us who were already scared of the water, also like camping, and also never want to go camping again. Boy, do I have a movie for you! Made the year after Jaws to intentionally tell the same story with a bear instead of a shark, Grizzly has risen to cult classic status due to countless replays on late night television and the fact that it’s actually a decent movie! I mean hell, you could do worse than copying one of the greatest American movies ever made, and producer Edward Montoro already had practice. He had been sued by Warner Brothers for deliberately trying to rip off The Exorcist with his film Beyond the Door, which was also a huge commercial success. There’s nothing to convince a guy to keep stealing more than letting him get away with it, and Grizzly was his brazen response.
If there’s anything that the grindhouse moviemakers knew how to do better than the big Hollywood studios, it was filling their films with bloody scenes of carnage that the studios wouldn’t dare to film. Grizzly follows this pattern to a T, and while it’s certainly not a “gore” movie by any stretch, it’s quite a bit bloodier than its aquatic predecessor. It’s rated PG, much like Jaws, but it’s important to remember that both films were released before PG-13 was a thing, and they didn’t quite meet the standard of an R-rating. The first two kills in the film have the bear ripping off an arm and clawing two beautiful young faces, like a giant furry slasher villain. And ultimately, that is what this film becomes: a slasher film where the killer is a woodland creature that is more scary and real than perhaps any slasher in existence.
You got one of them pic-a-nic baskets?
The Richard Dreyfuss character is an entertaining animal tracker named Arthur Scott, played magnificently by Richard Jaeckel, and the Sheriff role is instead a park ranger, played by the always awesome Christopher George. Unlike Jaws, which felt, even at the time, like something brand new that no one had ever seen before, the acting and the accents in this film lend it sort of a “western” vibe, which is understandable since many of these actors also worked together on the film Chisum. There are some amazingly scary scenes sprinkled within, though, most notably the part where a woman is killed during a children’s campout. It’s shocking in its suddenness and quite unnerving.
The scenes where the bear stalks its prey through the woods has a similar score to Jaws’ classic duh duh sounds, though Grizzly’s is admittedly much less effective and terrifying. But bears are terrifying in their own right, even without a theme song. The themes of the film, however, echo almost exactly, including the mayor who refuses to shut down the park despite the danger. Instead, hunters are hired to take down the villainous creature, including a bunch of bozos who have no idea what they’re doing. It feels repetitive to continually compare Grizzly to Jaws, but I cannot stress enough how almost-exactly-the-same these two films are. If you’ve seen Jaws, you’ve seen Grizzly, and fucking everyone has seen Jaws.
Surprisingly devoid of nudity, despite a role for a woman who was a Penthouse Pet (Victoria Johnson), Grizzly manages to be better than most exploitation/grindhouse films, with a better script and better acting than anything you’d be used to seeing at the drive-in. It’s dated but still effective, carrying with it the same critiques of greedy government that Jaws was able to get across. Grizzly’s Park Ranger Kelly (George) is way more of a badass than Scheider’s Brody, and does a better job of telling off the powers that be (though an equally ineffective job at actually changing things.) You know from the very beginning that he’s going to have a one-on-one showdown with the grizz, and you’re anxious to see how everything will work out while also knowing that it absolutely will. Like its predecessor, Grizzly isn’t afraid to kill children either, with a particularly gratuitous dismemberment ushering in the final act.
Oh no, he’s eating my son! And now he’s going to eat me! Oh nooooooooo…
The main place where Grizzly suffers in its comparison to Jaws is in the final act, where our heroes are trying to track the grizzly through the woods. They ride around for what seems like ages, looking for signs of the beast. The exact same scenario occurs in Jaws, with the boat on the ocean for-fucking-ever during the end of the film. However, there is a big difference between riding a horse through the woods and being alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean, especially once Bruce starts damaging the boat itself. The isolation and fear that results from being miles from shore connects with the audience way more than just being in the woods, especially in a national park, and Grizzly definitely lacks a lot of the fear power that Jaws carries for exactly that reason. Plus, there’s just something categorically unfair about a fight with an animal that involves a helicopter.
We call this the ‘ole Sarah Palin Special.
At the end of the day, Grizzly is better than almost every other film like it, save the original, but it has its shortcomings as well. It’s worth a watch for those who would appreciate it, but you’ve seen the film before more than once, I’d bet. It’s carried heavily by the acting chops of Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel, and while the bear isn’t nearly as scary as it perhaps should’ve been, the nice kills do actually put the ones in Jaws to shame. The film is currently streaming on Shudder for anyone interested in checking it out, and I highly recommend checking it out to scratch that “creature feature itch.”
Who this movie is for: Creature feature fans, B-horror lovers, People who want to be scared by Jaws but live in Montana
Bottom line: Practically a shot-for-shot remake of Jaws with a bear, Grizzly is the very definition of low-budget ripoff. Despite their similarities, however, Grizzly is must-watch for fans of creature features, and there’s enough substance within to make any fan enjoy their viewing. The acting is better than most, the cinematography makes it feel like the bear is pursuing the viewer, and there are enough gory scenes to make up the difference in quality between the two films. Definitely worth adding to your next Bearathon (see what I did there?)