In the wake of Steven Spielberg's masterful Jaws came a slew of lesser cash-ins, such as Orca and Pirahna. In 1976, the late director William "Day of the Animals" Girdler took the Jaws template out into the forest and gave audiences Grizzly- a film that so parallels its predecessor that it wears the tagline "Jaws with claws!" with pride. Where Spielberg's film was as much a dramatic character study as it was a thriller, however, Girdler's effort fits squarely in the drive-in exploitation realm.
In a side-by-side comparison, it's amazing how much Girdler (along with writers David Sheldon and Harvey Flaxman) aped Jaws. In both films, an animal (abnormally large for its species) goes on the attack in an area frequented by the public. The animals are tracked down chiefly by three men- a humble 'everyman' who acts as the authority figure, a kooky scientist who is more interested than studying the animal than in killing it, and an even kookier pilot/captain who tells harrowing stories about run-ins with the animal's brothers-in-arms. In both films, our 'everyman' protagonist (Roy Scheider as Sheriff Brody in Jaws, Christopher George as head ranger Kelly in Grizzly) faces bureaucratic opposition when he suggests closing down an area in the interests of public safety. In each movie we also get animal-eye-view-cam, layman hunting posses, a young woman who gets attacked whilst frolicking naked in the water (in Grizzly, a park ranger takes time out from the bear hunt to "soak her feet", which means stripping down to her bra and panties)...hell, Girdler even lifts Sheriff Brody's drunk scene! And I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that each film has a rather...explosive ending.
Despite the similarities between the characters of each film, this is the area where Grizzly completely lacks the Jaws magic. The men in Grizzly are extremely one-dimensional, and in the end we don't care about any of them. While they're all cardboard cut-outs, the women fare worse: relegated to the background at best, dismissed entirely at worst. For example, as Ranger Kelly and pilot Don (Andrew Prine) discuss tracking the bear via his movement patterns:
KELLY: Well, he likes women and he keeps moving.
DON: Sounds like me, always trawling. Say, what about that filly you been ridin'?
As I said earlier, Grizzly is undoubtedly a piece of schlocky, exploitation cinema- and this is where Girdler delivers the goods. When the bear attacks, the blood really flies. There are decapitations, dismemberment- why, Girdler even has the balls to have the bear attack a child, then toss his newly bloody-stumped body to the ground. That's sort of delightfully tasteless- yet it's not quite as tasteless as it could have been, were the kid not clearly enjoying the bear attack. It's super fun huggy time!
Despite the fact that our resident naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) tells us that the bear is well over 15 feet tall and weighs around a whopping 2000 pounds, the bear never seems really scary. For every shot of the bear acting formidable, like this...
...there's a shot of the bear acting all cute, like this:
The audience never gets a true grasp on his size, because there's never any spatial relationship between the bear and his victims- when bear and man are together in a shot, it's very obviously man-in-a-bear-suit and man together in a shot. That kind of shortcoming is part of what makes these movies so much fun; unfortunately, Grizzly isn't very much fun. It lacks that certain mojo that puts similar films- such as Kingdom of the Spiders- into the realm of over-the-top awesomeness.
Of course, it doesn't help matters when the "enemy" doesn't incite terror in the audience or in the actors. Maybe I took in too much Dan Haggerty and pal when I was a kid, I don't know- but at the end of the film, when Christopher George busts out the rocket launcher (yes, I said rocket launcher), I found myself quoting Rodney King- I mean...can't we all just get along?