As far as drive-in and exploitation movies go, it’s hard to find a director who did so much in so little time than the late William Girdler. From 1971 to his untimely death in 1978 at age 30 (a helicopter accident while scouting locations in the Philippines), Girdler directed a total of nine movies for prominent distributors, some of them which included some well-known character actors, and it’s no doubt he would have went on to even bigger things, even if he remained within the realm of the genre. Often cited as a rip-off of JAWS, 1976’s GRIZZLY was no doubt Girdler’s biggest hit, proving to be worldwide smash and breaking box office records in the U.S. Crying for a proper DVD release for some years, GRIZZLY has clawed its way into this 30th Anniversary special edition aimed at nature-strikes-back movie fans who have waited patiently for it.
In the summer months at Yellowstone National Park, campers are being viscously mutilated by what turns out to be a giant 2,000 pound grizzly bear. The park’s head ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George) tries desperately to track down the immense animal with the help of good ol’ boy helicopter pilot Don Strober (Andrew Pine) and eccentric fur-skin sporting naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel). In the meantime, park director Charlie Kittridge (Joe Dorsey) opposes Kelly’s failure to trap the bear by hiring a group of amateur trigger-happy hunters to mount their own search, and invites hordes of press people in what turns out to be a media circus to forward his career. The killer grizzly is seemingly unstoppable, and it’s ultimately up to the skilled and heroic trio to finally bring him down.
The plot of GRIZZLY is pretty basic, adhering to a lot of the conventional clichés we’ve come to expect from these sorts of films, but it still works as an entertaining action/horror effort due to its reliable veteran cast and tight editing. With the help of second unit teams, Girdler churned out this baby in a reported four-week schedule, using a real trained Grizzly for the most part, with a man in a hairy suit substituting by hugging and assaulting its victims in tighter shots (and to a much lesser extent, a mechanical bear was also utilized). An effective sole bear claw is initially introduced as the on-camera killing instrument of choice, doing in two perky female campers in the opening moments, with bloody limbs being tossed around like Frisbees. When the physical grizzly eventually makes its appearance, it brings on an authentic, imposing menace, captured in just the right camera angles to assure this. The bear’s scenes are then ingeniously intercut with its fabricated substitute, and this is especially unsettling when a tiny boy gathered up, massacred, and dropped to the ground as if he was a rag doll. It’s superbly executed shocks like this that make GRIZZLY hold up today, as well as the beautiful Georgian wilderness landscapes, and the chemistry between George, Prine and Jaeckel – three undeniably capable and welcomed faces, always rising above the B level endeavors to which they were often relegated to. Charles Kissinger, a TV horror host who acted exclusively in Girdler’s films, also makes an appearance as a doctor.
Shriek Show’s DVD of GRIZZLY presents the film in its original Todd-AO 35 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. It’s great to finally be able to appreciate the widescreen photography of the film in our living rooms, and it will no doubt aid heavily in reevaluated it from past full screen VHS and DVD editions we've been subjected to. The image is quite clean with excellent detail and accurate color schemes and fleshtones. There are only fleeing instances of grain or print blemishes, so the transfer is overall very satisfying. A solid mono audio mix serves the dialogue, sound effects and music quite well, and in addition, there is a Spanish language track. The film has a significant amount of bloodshed, and 30 years later, it’s still incredible to see what you could away with in a PG-rated release back then. Unfortunately, alternate gore scenes and alternate full-frontal shots of actress Vicky Johnson’s waterfall shower have not been incorporated in this version, nor have they been included as an extra. Oddly enough, the print source's original Film Ventures logo has been book-ended by a 1970s era Paramount Studios logo!
the director and two of the major stars (George and Jaeckel) being no longer
with us, Shriek Show has done a commendable job of telling the story of GRIZZLY
in the extras, spread across two discs. The primary extra on the first disc
is a commentary with the husband-and-wife team of co-producer/co-screenwriter
David Sheldon and actress Joan McCall, who plays George’s love interest
in the film. The commentary is moderated by Walt Olsen, who chimes in with good
questions, and the talk always remains energetic since both participants remember
so much about making it. Sheldon not only co-wrote and co-produced, but also
did some of the directing, so he did have a lot of creative input and gives
a lot of scene-specific details. McCall also recalls a decent amount of details,
including that her romantic scene with George was removed from the final film,
and also makes reference to Vicki Johnson’s alternate nude scene (noting
that it was shot for the foreign market). The other extra on the first disc
is a non-original trailer, which was obviously video generated for an earlier
video release. Moving
on to the second disc, an original promotional documentary showcases the behind-the-scenes
ordeal of working with the grizzly (whose name was “Teddy”) and
its trainer, which also incorporate interview footage of Girdler who narrates
the piece with his Kentuckian accent. The short film is in rough shape, but
its inclusion here is still much appreciated. An excellent new featurette entitled
“Jaws with Claws” again interviews Sheldon and McCall, who are joined
by co-producer/co-screenwriter Harvey Flaxman (who makes a cameo in the film
as a reporter) and actor Andrew Prine. This documentary covers nearly every
aspect of the film’s production, and there are a few emotional moments
when the late Girdler is discussed. Prine explains how he approached his character
and made up an entire sequence of dialogue, while Sheldon and Flaxman recall
suing the film’s distributor (Edward L. Montoro of Film Ventures) when
he tried (unsuccessfully) to keep all the profits for himself. A brief photo
gallery, several radio spots, trailers for other Shriek Show releases and video
footage from a recent revival screening in Hollywood round out the supplements.
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