If you want to see what the filmmakers behind Grizzly were aiming for, all you have to do is read the tagline above. There’s no bait and switch here folks: this is literally the movie Jaws moved to land. Instead of a New England seaside community being stalked by a murderous great white shark, we have a National Park occupied by an 18-foot-tall grizzly bear. The titular grizzly is just as murderous as the famous shark, albeit a slight bit fuzzier. Literally everything else is the same. When the bear starts hunting campers and hikers in the forests, a park ranger must do everything he can to keep the community safe from attacks. This is made harder by the park supervisor, who seems dead-set on getting in the way. You guys, it’s just Jaws with a bear.
To make things even better, the grizzly bear that stalks these woods seems to have been watching a lot of slasher movies, because he has a tendency to silently sneak up behind people when they least expect it and grab them in hilarious ways. This movie actually does have a real bear where one is needed (an 11-foot tall trained fella named Teddy), but most of the bear-committed-murder is carried out by crew members in bear suits. This is not as bad as it sounds. We never actually see a full-body shot of a person in a bear costume, but we see lots and lots of bear arms, especially as they snake around people’s necks from behind. If you can’t tell, I think this movie is just delightful. There’s very little attempt made at character development and stuff that would slow down the plot and keep us from watching people running for their life or getting mauled. In a lot of movies, I’d have a big problem with this, but it works for Grizzly.
Here’s the real kicker. This movie was an independent production, directed by William Girdler, the man who had helmed Sheba, Baby, starring Pam Grier, the previous year. It was a low-budget affair, shot on the cheap for somewhere in the neighborhood of 750,000 dollars, but it actually went on to become the highest-grossing independent movie of 1976. This thing is a crowd-pleaser that delivers on exactly what it promises; it was made for drive-ins, and the audiences responded.
Part of the fun for me with this movie is that it’s like a who’s who of exploitation players. I’ve already mentioned the director, but there are lots of other cast members who genre fans might recognize. Our dutiful forest ranger is played by Christopher George, who appeared in Cannon’s Enter the Ninja, the horror films Graduation Day and Pieces, and who also can be seen in multiple John Wayne films. George’s character has a job to do, but he’s going to need a little help from his friends. Andrew Prine, seen in The Town that Dreaded Sundown (the 1976 original) and the rad Empire Pictures film Eliminators, is a helicopter pilot who has the chopper that can get close to the bear. Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen, 3:10 to Yuma) is a naturalist who has the skills necessary to track and locate the bear. These three guys become a team that takes the war to the bear. The bear drew first blood. Not them. The bear drew first blood.
The other element that helps this movie is the awesome score from composer Robert O. Ragland. I don’t think Ragland ever had a breakout film score, but he did go on to compose for a couple of Charles Bronson movies with Cannon. Really, though, I think the score for this movie is just killer (ha ha) and gives it the feel of a big production. It’s got these lush strings and sweeping orchestral motifs, conjuring up grandeur and majesty, but then it turns on a dime and goes full-horror. It’s really hard to talk about a film’s score in a written piece and do it any kind of justice, but this one is really impressive for such a cheap movie about a killer bear. Come for the slaughter, stay for the symphony.
There’s an interesting footnote to this movie. It seems like any time there’s a big indie success like this, particularly during the wild days of the 1970s, there are going to be people in charge who screw other people over, and that’s exactly what happened here. I’ve already mentioned that this movie became the highest-grossing independent movie of 1976, grossing 39 million dollars off a budget of less than a million. Grizzly had been distributed by Film Ventures International, a company founded by a guy named Edward L. Montoro, who was infamous for financing mockbusters and ripping off ideas of successful films for his own no-budget projects (like this one). When this movie was a big success, Montoro decided to keep all the money for himself, refusing to pay his director, the writers, and producers the royalties that were owed them. They sued and they won. Montoro hobbled along for another decade or so making more mockbusters and a few more cult classics, but in 1984 all that he’d built was on the verge of financial ruin. Montrose embezzled over a million dollars from his failing company and simply vanished, never to be seen again. Some say he went to Mexico under a false name, but no one really knows for sure, as he completely disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. I think this story is at least as interesting as the movies that he left behind and it’s hard not to talk about Grizzly without mentioning how awful this guy was to pretty much everyone.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal At Midnight!