Despite a title suggesting a horror film, The Night of the Grizzly (1966) in fact is an inoffensive, episodic family Western, of the type fairly rare in 1966 but a market later cornered with great success by producer-star Michael Landon with the long-running TV series Little House on the Prairie. Clint Walker, late of Cheyenne, stars as the ex-sheriff and patriarch of a large family that inherits a ranch in 1880s Wyoming.
The film seems to enjoy a modest but loyal fan following, and in the interview with Walker included on the disc as an extra feature, he cites it as the favorite among his films. The picture has an unusually good cast, but is also predictable and blandly directed (by Joseph Pevney).
The Night of the Grizzly was a Paramount production filmed in Techniscope, much like producer A.C. Lyles Techniscope Westerns of the period (Johnny Reno, Apache Uprising), also for the studio. Like those movies, what The Night of the Grizzly lacks in style and innovation it makes up in unpretentious adventure and classicism.
Sublicensed to Olive Films, the film looks great. Though not cleaned up digitally like more high-profile Westerns, it's about par with the better-looking Techniscope Blu-ray releases covering this era, such as For a Few Dollars More (1965).
"Big Jim" Cole (Clint Walker) arrives in Hope, Wyoming with his family - wife Angela (Martha Hyer), son Charlie (Kevin Brodie), elder daughter Meg (Candy Moore), and youngest child Gypsy (Victoria Paige Meyerink), along with Jim's former deputy, old timer Sam Potts (Don Haggerty) - to claim a ranch left to Jim by his late grandfather.
The film is of the type where Jim and his family must overcome one obstacle after another. For starters, the land was won by Jim's grandfather in a poker game, but Hope's leading citizen, Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn), wants it back for his no-good sons: Tad (a pre-Tarzan Ron Ely) and Cal (Sammy Jackson). They, along with another bad apple, Duke Squires (Med Flory), generate a lot of trouble for the Coles, despite Jed's efforts to rein them in. Moreover, Cass Dowdy (Leo Gordon), a man Jim deputized but then had to put in prison after he unlawfully killed a man, arrives in Hope looking for vengeance.
But the largest problem, literally, is "Satan," an unstoppable grizzly bear wreaking havoc across the county, slaughtering everyone's cattle, sheep, and other livestock but evading traps while cleverly stealing their bait. "He can out-think any man ever born," claims local banker Cotton Benson (Regis Toomey). Jim, heavily in debt, decides to go after the grizzly for the bounty placed on its head.
Overlong at 102 minutes but with a story that's always moving forward, The Night of the Grizzly offers a mix of cute/exciting concepts with some overly familiar, clichéd ones. All the scenes with little Gypsy - encountering a skunk and its aftermath, lying in the grass, conversing with Jack Elam's handyman - are charming, while the comedy relief from Sam Potts is trite and predictable. For instance, when Satan kills Sam's beloved mule, Becky, the old-timer says, "She was never much good," all while tearing up in grief.
The filmmakers try their best to make the grizzly scenes frightening and suspenseful but the cutting between a real but obviously docile trained bear and a detailed bear costume, etc. doesn't really work. William Girdler's amusing Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976) does this much better on what was probably a smaller budget.
The cast saves the day. Walker, frequently shirtless, is perfect for a film like this, both physically imposing and with a basic gentleness that has long endeared him to his fans. Hyer, Wynn, Nancy Kulp (as man-hungry old maid Wilhelmina Peterson), Ellen Corby (as Jim's no-nonsense neighbor), Elam and others are fine in mostly genre stereotypes.
Video & Audio
Filmed in two-perf Techniscope, the process offering greater flexibility but at the cost of a grainier image than anamorphic photography, The Night of the Grizzly has a strong transfer with an impressively sharp and detailed image, superior to MGM's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (also Techniscope) and about par with the aforementioned For a Few Dollars More, to cite a couple of examples. There has been little to no digital cleanup resulting in some imperfections, but most audiences should be quite pleased. The mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is likewise fine, except for a few seconds around the 44:45 mark, when it becomes strangely muddled.
The lone supplement is a good one: "The Legend of Big Jim Cole" is a 27-minute interview with Clint Walker, now 85 and elderly but with that same soothing, familiar voice. He speaks fondly about the film and goes into more detail than most actors do on these things. It gets a little repetitive but it's a welcome extra feature. Paramount should allow Olive Films to do more of these kinds of things.
Of less interest as a Western than as a good, old-fashioned rainy afternoon family film, The Night of the Grizzly is pretty decent for what it is and the transfer closes the deal. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.