Bear-Raising

“18 Feet of Gut-Crunching, Man-Eating Terror!” shouted the trailer and ad heralds in 1976 for GRIZZLY, a fast-and-furry-ous and immensely entertaining Jaws rip-off, now on DVD from Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing.

I loved the ads then, as well as the brazen “homage” to the unstoppable Spielberg money-making tribute to a voracious dorsalized Mark Spitz.  I love it even more now, as it represents grindhouse fodder at its very best. I had, during the picture’s initial run, begun a letter-writing campaign to all the major studios, insisting that every movie from here on in use that headline herald; later on, I specifically relegated it to Meryl Streep titles. And still later on, I expanded the ballyhoo to include all political ads, prior to elections.

Great exploitation aside, what separates GRIZZLY from competitive sleaze is that the key folks involved took it seriously enough to give it their best shot. I mean, obviously one is not going to enter a theater showing GRIZZLY with the aspirations of mingling with the Last Year at Marienbad crowd (and thank God for that). One is going with the hopes of being royally thrilled in high amusement-park fashion. And, I am proud to say, he or she will not be disappointed.

The amazing thing about GRIZZLY is how it so fervently decided early-on to follow the near-identical paws-for-jaws narrative on land, if not by sea. The New York summer beach resort has been handily replaced by the natural beauty of a premier American national park. The skeevy Murray Hamilton scumbag politico who wants to cover up the shark attacks is a virtual doppelganger of a wanker intent upon bringing in that all-important last gasp post-season summer cash. There’s even a memorable rant, a la Robert Shaw’s WWII shark tale, elevated to an ancient Native American legend. GRIZZLY even goes one better by having the initial beauteous teenaged victim multiplied to a double order of supersized girly grizzly burgers (and look close, folks, as, later on, one of the female vics is, in a lip-smacking in-joke, none other than Jaws‘ infamous appetizer Susan Backlinie).

While the picture was produced and distributed by the notorious Edward L. Montoro (Platinum Pussy Cat, Don’t Go Near the House, Mortuary, and, my favorite, Cardiac Arrest), the fact remained that something genuinely presentable was going to be shoved down the drive-in/Times Square patrons’ throats whether they liked it or not. The reviewers at the time were dumbfoundedly confused, many not knowing what to make of this gory story – and eventually sighing that it, for what it was, it ain’t half bad.  Of course, that also means it ain’t half good, but why quibble?

A lion’s…umm bear’s share of kudos is due not so much to the screenplay by coproducers Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon and (uncredited) costar Andrew Prine (who specifically authored the Native American stuff), but to the authentically professional and often inventive direction by William Girdler. Girdler relied greatly upon classic cinema history to tell his garish low-budget tales, and superbly was able to make them look as if they were filmed on a way grander scale.  This feat of flicker legerdemain was achieved via some frequently commendable widescreen compositions, plus an admirable amount of suspense overshadowed by a generous supply of Karo Syrup.

To help achieve these lofty ambitions, Girdler bonded with some extremely talented camerafolk, here by the unfortunately named William Asman (who makes the 2.40:1 imagery pop, almost unfathomable for something processed by MovieLab). Of course, Girdler’s ace card (or cards) was his casts, here beautifully realized by a handful of recognizable thesps, including the aforementioned Prine, who supports the always-excellent top-billed Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel. The babes are…well, babe-licious, and, obviously, tasty, as any monstrous bruin will attest to.

The special effects are likewise to be praised, and, for their money constraints, admirably orchestrated. Stalking scenes are nearly all POV – a wise choice (the opposite downside that John Frankenheimer painfully learned to his chagrin with his goofy 1979 ecological horror fable Prophesy; although I have to say, I like that movie too). Once the munchin’ and a-crunchin’ starts to kick in and the ravaged body parts strewn helter skelter like Chris Christie at a Fourth of July picnic, nothing is left to the imagination. And isn’t that what America is all about?

Which brings us to the carnage itself – and it couldn’t happen to more deserving human vittles:  slobs ignoring warning signs, kumbaya-singing Christian Mingle-sired families (heavy on the white meat), liddle kiddie tater tots becoming a gooey helping of baby-back ribs with a side order of mommy. It’s glorious!

There are some curious head-scratching moments. The buxom forest ranger, who, prior to returning to safety, announces (with the proverbial target on her back), that she wants to cool her tootsies in the nearby secluded stream. Why she insists upon doing this topless is never explained, nor have there been (to my knowledge) any complaints voiced in the four decades since the original release.

On the minus side is Prine, who is not likeable in any way, shape or form, prone to spouting far too many sexist comments – even for a ‘70s grindhouse opus. And poor Chris George smokes enough coffin nails to single-handedly keep a local cancer ward operational 24/7.

Nods to other horror pics notwithstanding, Girdler even manages to throw in a Godfather horse’s noggin. His brief subsequent work would elaborate on this technique even more. The director’s 1978 exorcisim frightfest The Manitou, starring an even greater all-star cast (Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Stella Stevens, Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith) showed further honing of his craft and promised a bright future. In something out of one of his scenarios, Girdler’s shocking demise occurred on January 21, 1978, when, while checking Philippine locations, he was killed in a helicopter accident.

GRIZZLY was shot in a (big surprise) right-to-work state (Georgia), and took full advantage of the spectacular scenery that illustrates the picturesque vicinity known as Clayton.

Some horrific shenanigans were actually going on behind the scenes too. Girdler, Flaxman and Sheldon were, in true movieland fashion, screwed out of their salaries and profits by Montoro and the Film Ventures Group. A lawsuit finally settled this kerfuffle as GRIZZLY towered about the competition, grossing an impressive $39 million 1976 dollars. It became the most financially successful independent movie of the year, a record broken two years later by Halloween. In spite of his underhanded mishegas, Montoro proudly boasted that GRIZZLY was the best picture his company ever made (no argument).

Sequels were bandied about for years, but with the impending lawsuits, nothing concrete ever really officially could be termed a continuation.

Kino-Lorber is to be congratulated for giving us such a lovely platter to revisit our popcorned nightmares.  The picture quality served up by this new HD anamorphic DVD transfer is sharp as hell and boasts a palette of colors that I suspect were probably never evident when the movie debuted. The mono audio is excellent as well, and contains a score by one Robert O. Ragland.

There are also numerous extras and some hilariously grotesque trailers from other Scorpion DVDs.

“It’s a butcher shop out there,” cleverly remarks a GRIZZLY participant.  And so it is. In a world bulging with the likes of imitators (Tentacles, Tintorera, Day of the Animals, Dogs, Killer Fish, etc.), don’t be fooled (not even by the lame Jaws 2): Accept no substitutes: GRIZZLY is the real fake!

GRIZZLY.  Color.  Widescreen [2.40:1 16 x 9 anamorphic]; Mono audio. Kino-Lorber/Scorpion Releasing.  CAT # SCORP1095.  SRP:  $19.95.

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