Hack a-hack cough wheeze. If you young punks would settle down, Ill spin ye a tale about the days before Jaws. A tale of balmy summers unsullied by weekly blockbusters, when marketing wasnt a dirty word. Well, not as dirty as it is now. Dont believe me, do ye? Hah! Young people never do .
My own experience with the Jaws juggernaut is a bit problematical; released in the Summer of 75, it fell between my junior and senior years of high school, and being unspeakably cool, I was damned if I was going to see anything that popular. How good could it possibly be, if that many people liked it?
That got answered my freshman year of college, when my roommate asked "You mean youve never seen Jaws?" in the same tone of voice reserved for questions like "What do you mean you like trips to the dentist?" This was during the movie's 1976 re-release, back before home video, when the only way you could see a movie again was during such an return engagement.
So that was when I found out how good something popular could be.
Others have examined exactly why and how Jaws became such a box office monster (lame pun, unfortunately, intended), so I will leave such ponderings to them. Suffice it to say that Steven Spielberg, after Akira Kurosawa, must be the most-frequently ripped-off director in the world. Okay, thats probably Hitchcock or Woo. I should have said his pictures are the most often imitated. Spielberg has made some damn fine movies since, but Jaws, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, form an integral part of many peoples personal mythologies. And my God, how many people tried to make money off those mythologies, with their baldly blatant imitations.
There are certainly enough of those to populate a roundtable. See the link to the Master Page of the Roundtable, above. Note how some have chosen two and even four titles (the show-offs). I've even made a trip to this watery wasteland, before. The surface is still barely scratched.
Case in point: while I was belatedly experiencing the thrills of the original in 76, one of those imitators was racking up some serious cash at the box office: Grizzly, which threatened to do for camping what Jaws did for beaches - 25 years before Blair Witch promised to do the same thing. The conceit is simple: put the story on land, substituting a landbound predator for the shark. Biggest landoving carnivore? The Grizzly bar *.
Unfortunately, the execution is as simple as the conceit. If youve seen Jaws, the template is pretty clear: a national park is terrorized by a man-eating grizzly of extraordinary size and seeming intelligence, if not ouright malevolence. Despite the warnings of the Brody character (Park Ranger Michael Kelly, played by Christopher George), the Mayor character (Park Supervisor Kittridge, played by Joe Dorsey) refuses to close the park. Not because its the 4th of July, but because um. According to Hardcore Park Ranger Kelly, it is because the bureaucrat is somehow planning to parley the media hubbub into a "brown plastic office in Washington."
Fortunately, the Forest Service also employs a Hooper (Richard Jaeckel as Scott) and a Quint (Andrew Prine as Stober), who does not employ a boat, but a helicopter, to aid George in his meandering crusade against the bloodthirsty bruin.
You follow the usual flow of a Jaws rip-off: a character youve never seen before, with no actual introduction? Bear kibble. Witness our first victims, at nearly ten minutes into the movie. Unlike its progenitor, which dropped you right into the action with the harrowing attack on Chrissie, Grizzly begins with an eco-speech by Prine to two bored older gentlemen trapped with him in the helicopter - men whom we will never see again - and the morning meeting of the rangers, where George banters with Tom and Gail (Tom Arcuragi and Vicki Johnson), two Young Rangers in Love, and therefore doomed.
But not as imminently doomed as the two flannel-wearing dollies walking out of the woods into their campsite, at the nine minute mark, oh no. They exposit that theyve walked ten miles, though theyre not carrying walking sticks, compasses or canteens. I also note that they left their campfire burning - insert your own hilarious Smokey the Bear joke here. I know I did.
After the mandatory false scare with Ranger Tom and his horse, the women decide to break camp, which for some reason involves building their fire higher. One leaves the other to clean up the campsite while she, ironically enough, goes to do what bears normally do in the woods.
But not our stereotype-breaking title character, who is busily engaged in stalking the remaining woman with treetop POVs and a theme song filled with repetitive major chords. A lot of screaming, one severed arm and several splashes of stage blood later, Victim #2, her toilet paper forgotten, runs through the woods to a dilapidated cabin which does not stand up well to the fake stuffed grizzly paw which is pursuing her.
After finding the bodies of the two women - one of whom has been buried by the bear for later snacking - George organizes a Ranger hunting party. This, of course, includes Tom and Gail. Tom, of course, will leave Gail behind to check out whats over a hill, so Gail can soak her feet in the nearby stream. This involves Gail stripping down, of course, to her skivvies and standing in a waterfall. The wily bear is hiding in the cascading waterfall, of course.
I find in examining movies like this, I use the words "of course" a lot.
This scene brings us to one of the major, major pitfalls of Grizzly. I know Im starting to sound like a broken record on the subject, but for petes sake, can we please settle on a size for the monster? Its bad enough that the occasional shots of bear paws shambling along forest paths switch in color from black fur to brown fur to black again... but the opening POV shots place the bears head along the treetops, and in this scene, the bears arm wraps around the under-dressed Ranger at about neck level, implying a more man-sized creature. Or a guy wearing a bear suit but come now, what are the chances of that?
Examining the frame grab on the right, we can either surmise that A.) the gigantic bear is on all fours, and grabbing her with one forepaw; B) A man-sized bear (or, possibly, Sasquatch) is grabbing her (or copping a feel); C) A badger is chewing on the woman's shoulder.
It doesnt help that when we eventually do see our title character, it will be an 11 foot tall brown bear. Still an impressive specimen, but short of the 15 feet the Jaeckel/Hooper character claims, and certainly not the 18 foot tall monster promised on the poster.
Ah, yes, Jaeckel plays the naturalist Arthur Scott, one of the best characters in evidence. First discovered doing the Dian Fossey bit with a herd of deer ("I've been living with them for a week!"), he is interrupted by a call from a primitive cell phone. Seems hes on a first name basis with all the bears in the Park, so George wants him in from the field to help with the ursine assassin. In fact, while later trolling about in his bear skin, he is almost shot by George and Prine, that's how good he is. Its Jaeckels job to inform us that its a 15 foot, one ton grizzly doing the wet work, a beast almost prehistoric in its size and appetite. My credulity gets strained a little here, too, as the backstory informs us the Parks bear population was catalogued and re-located some time ago, so where exactly a mountain of fur and teeth was hiding - especially a mountain that has to eat a lot - is a bit beyond me. The ocean remains largely unexplored, so monster fish I can buy, but...
Ah, hell, were not here for backstory or explanations, were here to see people get et by a grizzly bar! The next attack happens at a crowded campsite, when a woman retires to her tent to change into a nightgown. That also goes on the List of Things I Didnt Know, that people who are roughing it pack fairly matronly nightgowns - but then, Im not the outdoors type, so what do I know?
She pays for this behavior with the goofiest death in the movie, as that stuffed grizzly paw comes a-callin at the tent wall. Its obvious the actress was shot lying on her back for her death scene, her head hanging over a platform's edge. For some reason this was judged insufficiently horrifying, so they flipped the footage upside down, her hair now flowing straight upward. Oh yes, much more frightening.
Realizing they cant top that death scene, the filmmakers decide to go to the bounty hunters trope, as Kittridge opens the park to hunters and declares open season on what is described as a "bear with a taste for women". My own personal deduction would be Jason Voorhees in a bear costume, but again, not being an outdoorsman, what do I know? This leads to a fairly suspenseful sequence where a lone hunter finds himself pursued by what he thought was his quarry (First rule of hunting: when you see a big bear, do not drop the friggin' gun). (Wuss.) This potential victim is male, though, and fully clothed, to boot, so he is allowed to get away by falling in a stream and getting swept away.
Fearing that the influx of hunters will also lead to the deaths of Bambi, Thumper, and possibly even Flower, George forces the usual argument with the Mayor of Amity sorry, the Supervisor, in which the Ranger is informed "there is no room in the Forest Service for mavericks!" I have no idea why, but I find that statement hilarious.
It takes the next attack - in which a young boys leg is ripped off (and how that is accomplished is beyond me - one second, the kid is in a bear hug, the next, hes on the ground without a leg. Is there a mouth in the bears belly? Did the Surgical Tiger from Mighty Peking Man drop by?) and the kids stick figure Mom gets chewed up instead - does the Supervisor finally relent and give George a free hand. (Fortunately, they did not go so far as to give the Supervisor a line like "Kelly - my kids were out chasing bunnies, too!")
The free hand" involves loading all sorts of armaments into Prines helicopter and letting Jaeckel strike out on his own, because he can "look like a bear, smell like a bear " More amazing than the fact that the US Forest Service has access to rocket launchers is the fact that "looking like a bear and smelling like a bear" involves riding around on a horse, which is really odd because everybody know that bears ride around on those little tricycles.
Prine and Georges first attempt to get the grizzly by hanging out a gutted deer fails when the bear leads them on a mile-long chase and then circles back for the tasty snack, doubtless engaging in throaty bear chuckles all the while. Jaeckel finds the deer carcass the next day, and has the brain wave to drag the smelly thing behind his horse so he can lead the bear into a crossfire between himself and the other two hunters. Faster than you can say, "Thats a bad idea because youre a third-billed actor," the results are a decapitated horse and a bloodied Jaeckel in a shallow grave. (This in turn leads to the movies other effective moment, when Jaeckel awakens to find hes been saved for a later meal and unearths himself, only to find thats already later, and the bear has returned for his people-shaped pic-a-nic basket.)
So it must be showdown time (barely five minutes left in the movie). Grizzlys version of Bruce the Shark leaping aboard the scuttled Orca is to have the bear push the landed copter around in a circle, causing Prine to fall out. True to the Quint curse, Prine gets off two shots before his rifle jams and he winds up coughing blood. Lacking any compressed air tank to jam in the grizzly's mouth, George instead whips out the aforementioned rocket launcher and makes with the boom-boom. Somehow, I am not moved to cheer as I did at the end of Jaws. What a surprise. The end.
You can see where director William Girdler tried to avoid making this a Jaws manque, but it's also painfully obvious that despite his attempts to camouflage the movie's true identity, that is precisely what it is and if your reservoir of cynicism isn't full yet, just consider that it is this quality of naked imitation that likely made this Girdler's most financially successful movie.
Though it's not possible to have the panicked-masses-running-from-the-beach scene, there is a sequence with many hysterical backpackers running through the woods while a newscaster relays information about the killer bear (I guess hikers could be carrying AM radios again, outdoors= not me). This doesn't quite achieve the same effect in fact, it put me more in mind of a Godzilla movie in a woodland setting. The predator vs. man-made structure scene is there, however: the pier smashing not an option, the bear instead takes down a watchtower, occupied by - of course - the doomed Ranger Tom. (And there's that "of course" again) Legend even has it that there is another bear attack scene missing, where the victim is none other than Susan Backlinie, who played Chrissie, Bruce's first victim, in Jaws. Someone may have had an attack of shame at the last moment.
None of this is the worst Grizzly has to throw at you. No, the strict adherence to the Jaws template means that the Brody character must have a romantic interest, an emotional anchor to help him weather the inevitable distress and soul-searching that comes with the killing (and eating) of his charges. In Jaws, of course, that was the splendidly cast Lorraine Gary. In Grizzly, however, what we get is Joan McCall.
McCall plays Alison, a professional photographer and one-time resident of the area. The menfolk, particularly George, spend most of the picture talking down to her, and unfortunately, one has to admit that she deserves it. There is very little the character has to offer the story, except annoyance, and I began to actively hate her, and dread her appearance. Ms. McCall is also saddled with one of the worst hairstyles to come out of the 70s, and I began to think of her as The Horrible Baby-Headed Monster, far more disturbing than the title character. It is an absolute relief when George finally informs her she can't go on the final hunt, and we no longer have to deal with The Horrible Baby-Headed Monster, whose presence always insured another poor attempt at an emotional scene, when all we really wanted was another visit by the stuffed grizzly paw and some more stage blood thrown around.
Therein lies the most telling blow against Grizzly, if not, indeed, all Jaws rip-offs: the emotional core of Spielberg's movies is always quite strong, a quality only an equally skilled filmmaker can approach. And though you can see Girdler improve through each successive movie, he certainly isn't up to Spielberg's game at this point in his career. Though it's not Girdler's fault, I've also found something vaguely creepy about Christopher George. Prine and Jaeckel, on the other hand, have always been solid and entertaining in whatever piece of crap they find themselves.
It's largely thanks to them and whatever schadenfreunde we possess that would give rise to the slasher film in just a few short years that Grizzly becomes an okay waste of 90 minutes, and not an exercise that causes you to seek legal action to get thathour and a half of your life back. It wasn't bad enough to make me say it was "un-bear-able", and for that, everyone especially myself should be very, very grateful...
You want Jaws on land? Watch Tremors instead.
September 26, 2003