Sunday, November 2, 2008

Grizzly (1976) review


Christopher George (Michael Kelly), Andrew Prine (Don Stober), Richard Jaekel (Arthur Scott), Joan McCall (Allison), Joe Dorsey (Charley Kittridge), Charles Kissinger (Dr. Hallitt)

Directed by William Girdler

A gigantic rampaging Grizzly bear slaughters and consumes vacationers at Yellowstone National Park. A determined Park Ranger, a helicopter pilot and a wildlife expert attempt to stop the killer grizzly before it causes any more deaths.

Ambitious and creative director William Girdler's most successful film, GRIZZLY (1976) was a surprise hit during its US release breaking box office records at the time as well as being a huge hit overseas. Seeing the film today, it's difficult to fathom what all the hoopla was about. It's not a bad film, but not particularly good, either. What hurts the picture are a number of scenes with supporting players and extras who obviously are not of the caliber of the main cast. Written in 8 days, the film was a 4 week shoot. Girdler was falling behind schedule and (writers/producers) Flaxman and Sheldon shot second unit on the picture.

The violence is incredibly strong for a PG rated film and would garner an R today. The most startling piece of violence involves a graphic attack on a little boy in which the grizzly rips off his leg! Dismemberments and a lot of blood flying around add potency to Girdler's occasionally suspenseful sequences. Some scenes were cut or were not used for the US release. A scene involving a beautiful female ranger stripping off her clothes to take a bath under a waterfall was shot twice--one with her underwear and bra, and another without. Also, a love scene between Christopher George and Joan McCall was cut from the film at the behest of Executive Producer, Montoro. The film was submitted on three different occasions to the MPAA before it was passed with a PG rating.

The acting in GRIZZLY (1976) is fairly mundane save for the main actors who all keep the film afloat. Christopher George was a fine choice as the rugged hero; his character being a close approximation of the Brody character essayed by Roy Scheider in JAWS (1975), the film that GRIZZLY (1976) is modeled after. George appeared in a number of movies with his gorgeous wife, Lynda Day George; one of them being Girdler's other nature-gone-amuck flick, DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977). George was also famous for having appeared as a centerfold in Playgirl magazine from 1974.

George was also memorable for portraying Sergeant Troy in the WW2 television show THE RAT PATROL (1967) as well as several John Wayne western movies. George's co-stars Prine and Jaekel also featured with him in John Wayne's CHISUM (1970). Christopher George can also be seen in some prime exploitation cinema. He took roles in THE EXTERMINATOR (1980), Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), the slasher film, GRADUATION DAY (1981), the trash favorite, PIECES (1983) and his last film, the awful Edward Montoro produced, MORTUARY (1983). Christopher George died of a heart attack on November 23rd, 1983 at the age of 54.

Andrew Prine plays the sarcastic realist, Stober, a helicopter pilot that hesitatingly helps Kelly hunt down the grizzly. Prine was a Broadway performer who later migrated to film appearing in a number of classic westerns and most memorably to genre fans, his slew of exploitation and horror films. He starred in SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1971), essayed a sadistic ringleader in BARN OF THE NAKED DEAD (1974), a serial killer in THE CALENDAR GIRLS (1974), a lawman in the true account, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976), THE EVIL (1978), about the devil living in the basement of a spooky mansion and AMITYVILLE 2: THE POSSESSION (1982). Prine also appeared in a prominent role in the hit mini series, V (1983) and V: THE FINAL BATTLE (1984).

Richard Jaekel plays the eccentric wildlife scientist, Arthur Scott. His character is anxious to get into the thick of the situation putting his life in serious peril just to get up close and personal to study the killer grizzly. Jaekel was a familiar face in many military pictures and played a lot of heavies in westerns and action films. He also appeared in a number of exploitation and horror flicks like his two co-stars. He was one of the lead heroes in the Japan-US co-production, LATITUDE ZERO (1969), the end-of-the-world/killer bat combo, CHOSEN SURVIVORS (1974), WALKING TALL 2 (1975) and a man who befriends sharks and uses them to kill those that wrong him in MAKO, JAWS OF DEATH (1976) among some others.

GRIZZLY (1976) closely follows the pattern set down by JAWS (1975) and considering JAWS was coined the first blockbuster movie, this may have been the central key to GRIZZLY's success. In light of the treatment ABBY (1974) was afforded by Warner Brothers, it's a bit odd Universal didn't go after this film. Possibly the completely different setting was what kept GRIZZLY (1976) out of trouble?

Even the characters are amazingly similar. The aforementioned Ranger character notwithstanding, Prine's helicopter pilot is modeled on Robert Shaw's Quint portrayal in JAWS (1975). Prine even ad libbed a speech that was vastly similar to Quint's Indianapolis speech during JAWS. What's even more amazing, is that Robert Shaw was said to have also ad libbed his speech as well. Of course, Jaekel's character is to Girdler's film what the Dreyfuss character was to Spielberg's movie.

The threat of having to close the park thereby losing lots of revenue is another similar story conceit also found in JAWS (1975). The constant argumentative exchanges between Kelly and Kittridge, the owner of the park, are very amusing and entertaining. Neither actor seemingly never have a nice word to say to one another the duration of the picture.

The writers and producers, however, dislike the comparisons made by critics between the two movies and claim to have written their movie before JAWS (1975) was made. Whatever the case may be, comparisons are unavoidable and the similarities are impossible to overlook. Even still, GRIZZLY (1976) was a massive success but will nonetheless forever be remembered as a JAWS rip off.

A real Grizzly Bear (named 'Teddy') was used for the film. Although it was the largest in captivity at the time (11 feet tall), the bear was hyped as being as much as 15 to 18 feet tall in the advertisements and in the film. The bear was trained with an electrical fence and was scared of being shocked. The makers utilized a series of electrical fencing surrounding the area that encompassed the filming locations. The method by which the makers got shots of 'Teddy' to stand upright and open his maw to look frightening was to have a guy hold up a fishing pole with food attached to the end of it.

Shot for around a million dollars, Montoro insisted the producers go all out for the film. His resolve to overspend came in handy to cover up for his later purloining of the productions profits. The music courtesy of Robert Ragland conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (!) add an additional punch to the action and scenes of horror. The Georgia locations are fabulous and the photography is definitely one of the films strong points.

Producer Edward L. Montoro was one of the most (if not the most) infamous and duplicitous movie producers ever in Hollywood. Having had an avalanche of lawsuits slapped against him for numerous cinematic endeavors, he fled the United States sometime in the late 80's and has never been seen since.

His production company, Film Ventures International, was very successful for a time but the cavalcade of legal action brought about the burgeoning company's demise. Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon (the producers and writers), after discovering what was happening with the earnings from the runaway success of the film, ended up suing Montoro for their share of the profits. In the end, Montoro lost the case and was forced to pay the producers their fair share from the original production agreement.

Director William Girdler toiled in low budget horror and fantasy for a number of years directing some choice films such as THREE ON A MEATHOOK (1972), (a film that predated THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 1973), ABBY (1974), (the Blaxploitation EXORCIST clone that got pulled from distribution by a lawsuit from Warner Brothers), SHEBA, BABY (1975) starring Pam Grier and his magnum opus-the star studded, OTT, jaw dropping sci-fi horror camp classic, THE MANITOU (1978). Girdler was very talented and got better with each successive film. He was killed in a helicopter crash on January 21st (my birthday) of 1978 while scouting locations in the Philippines when the chopper carrying Girdler ran into some high tension wires and exploded.

He no doubt would have went on to bigger and better things had he lived. His movies may not have been great accomplishments, but they will be remembered fondly by those who caught them in the theater or on the Late, Late Show. GRIZZLY (1976) is a flawed, but fondly remembered title and has a rather large cult following.

A sequel was mounted in the early 80's but was never finished reportedly due to conflicts with the producers and the creators of an elaborate mechanical bear creature to be used in the film. Had the film been completed, it would have been the acting debuts of Charlie Sheen, George Clooney and Laura Dern.

Produced and released during a time that in all likelihood couldn't be duplicated today, the film presents an effective, if familiar scenario from the previous years first summer blockbuster. Peppered with very good performances by its principle leads and some startling violence for its time, the success of GRIZZLY is undermined only by the sadness that its aspiring director, William Girdler, was taken from the film world well before his time.

This review is representative of the Media Blasters/Shriek Show 2 Disc Special Edition DVD

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