Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Bear Facts

Whether it exists on the land, in the sea, or in the air, I've always had a healthy respect for wildlife - and by 'respect for,' of course, I mean 'fear of.' A key piece of early instruction in teaching me about the potential perils of the wild kingdom was 1976's Grizzly. A Jaws rip-off, wherein instead of an ocean of swimmers being picked off by a Great White shark, a forest of hikers and campers were being torn to pieces by a mammoth grizzly bear, Grizzly was - as the poster promised - "18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror". And as seven feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror is officially the point at which I soil my shorts, eighteen feet is epic overkill. This bear isn't going to raid your picnic basket for a jelly sandwich and an apple - it's going to maul your face off and have your guts for lunch. If you ever wondered what a Mack Truck with claws would look like, boy is Grizzly the movie for you.

Directed by the late William Girdler (Day of the Animals, The Manitou), who died way too young at age 30 in a helicopter crash, Grizzly was the biggest hit of his career. I first saw Grizzly not in theaters but on the ABC Friday Night Movie (inexplicably retitled Killer Grizzly for the occasion) in 1978 (the same year as Girdler's untimely death) and it completely fried my nine-year-old mind. I don't remember now how much of the grislier elements of Grizzly - such as shots of severed limbs, or the bear's prolonged thrashing of its victims - were actually left intact for that TV airing but I do know that what I saw back then was more than enough. Watching Grizzly again recently for the first time since '78, I had to give my younger self credit for not bailing on the movie early on as the attacks here were way more intense than anything I had seen up to that point.

Seeing a film - especially a horror film - at an impressionable age can make it seem far better than it actually is and Grizzly is no exception to that. Still, to Girdler's credit, over thirty years later it remains a solid film. Charged with bringing down the bear, Christopher George is his usual steady self as Chief Ranger Michael Kelly. George has the Chief Brody role here, butting heads with a bureaucracy too blind and arrogant to recognize the real danger at hand. Once the body count gets high enough, though, the Powers That Be finally let Kelly muster all his forces against the bear. Unfortunately, his forces include only Richard Jaeckel as nutty naturalist Arthur Scott (a well-meaning jackass who wants to take this two-ton monster in alive - guess how well that works out!) and Andrew Prine as Don Stober, a helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet. That isn't much of a task force to take down 18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror but as someone once said - you don't go to war with the army you wish you had, but with the army you have. Sometimes, however, the army you have gets completely bitch-slapped.

If Brody, Quint, and Hooper seemed outmatched against the shark in Jaws, they look like a crack commando unit chasing a minnow compared to the collection of walking lunch meat in Grizzly. The only way it seems possible for these guys to kill this man-eater is if they give it fatal indigestion. Of course, the last survivor does manage - by the skin of their teeth - to annihilate their foe and the lesson that's learned is when confronting a murderous grizzly, go right for the rocket launcher. That should be your Plan A - Plan B should be a nuclear strike. I don't know if it was out of a spirit of sportsmanship that Kelly and his crew were using rifles against the grizzly when they had a perfectly good rocket launcher on hand but it turned out to be the wrong approach. They might as well have been using a fucking musket. I know Davy took out Goliath with a slingshot but sometimes the only way to beat an overwhelming enemy is with overwhelming firepower. Believe me, if a grizzly bear could operate a rocket launcher, he wouldn't hesitate to use it on you.

In 1978, "awesome" wasn't a part of the popular vocabulary so I don't know what word I would've used then to describe the sight of a grizzly bear literally being blown to bits, leaving only a burning crater in the earth. I guess "cool" would've had to have sufficed at the time but "awesome" really is what it was. Seeing it again, I was happy to find that I didn't have adjust my childhood opinion of Grizzly all that much. While some it was sillier than I remembered (park rangers on the trail of a killer grizzly probably shouldn't be stripping down for a frivolous swim in a river), that's hardly anything to be embearrassed about.


Matt-suzaka said...

What may be even more frightening than a killer bear, are the road conditions that woman had to face in the Pepsi commercial!

I bearly remembear Grizzle as that is one of many films that I saw on TV at a young age and it is one I would like to revisit in the near future.

It's nice to hear you still found the movie to be enjoyable even outside of nostaligic reasons. Usually when you revisit a film that you love from your youth, it doesn't live up to the good memories you had.

Jeff Allard said...

I agree about that Pepsi ad, Matt - even Mad Max wouldn't brave those roads!

Bob Ignizio said...

I rented this one about a year back and had a great time watching it. Love Gridler's other flicks, too. They're just cheap, fun movies with a certain eccentricity and personal flavor that you just don't get these days. Can't believe this got a PG rating, either.

Matt-suzaka said...

Heh...not sure what's funnier, the Mad max comment you made, or my misspelling of Grizzly!

Jeff Allard said...

Matt, let's call it a draw on that - they're both hilarious!

Bob, Girdler definitely had a knack for the horror genre - what a shame his life and career were cut so short. I bet he would've ruled in the '80s!