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At my local video store (yes, some still exist), there exists a subsection in "horror" titled "nature's vengeance." A veritable cornucopia of animals terrorizing humans in all shapes and forms, the sheer variety of the section owes its roots to a little film from 1975. "Jaws" is the film that made Steven Spielberg a household name. Taking the simple concept of Peter Benchley's novel and bringing it to the big screen with a trio of eclectic heroes: the cool and stoic Roy Scheider, neurotic Richard Dreyfuss and unhinged man's man Robert Shaw, "Jaws" helped not only define an entire of genre of films to come, but holds a special place in film history as one of the early summer blockbusters. It would see three sequels, each an exercise in the law of diminishing returns, but not before a variety of imitators sprung up, beginning with a film often summed up as "Jaws with claws," just one year later.
William Girdler's "Grizzly" may be the first "Jaws" imitator, but it's undoubtedly far from the best to pop-up. Running a scant 89-minutes, "Grizzly" literally swipes Spielberg's playbook and transposes it note for note to a forest setting, forgetting what any bush-league team copying an all-star's playbook does: without the talent to execute those plays, you're hopeless. All this should come as no surprise, given Girdler's background as a low-budget director, fresh off a trio of blaxploitation films, the most notable of which is one of Pam Grier's lesser efforts, "Sheba, Baby." What Girdler lacks in finesse though, he brings in sheer unabashed willingness to get gory and shock audiences, something Spielberg avoided with the tried and true "more is less" approach to scares.
All the archetypes and plotting from "Jaws" are present: Amity is replaced by a national park and Sheriff Brody is replaced by Chief Ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George). Facing the threat of a yet unseen killer Grizzly, Kelly is locked in the irrational struggle with a need to protect the general public and pleasing his bottom-line minded boss, played by Joe Dorsey. A few attacks in and like Brody before him, Kelly goes to the expert; enter Richard Jaeckel, the film's acting highlight as an eccentric naturalist. Although not as nebbish as Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper, the intent is all the same, although Jaeckel, the veteran of many war films (you might remember him from "The Dirty Dozen" as Sgt. Bowen or in his Oscar nominated performance in the criminally forgotten "Sometimes a Great Notion"), Jaeckel brings the cool confidence so badly needed by lead George, who is as far removed from Roy Scheider as a hero could get. Rounding out the shameless riffing is Andrew Pine as Don Stober, a pilot serving as the film's Quint.
There's very little original material in "Grizzly" and it's brief running time stretches out at times for an arduous slog from one gory, ineptly filmed menacing sequence to the next. If it weren't for blatant dialogue throughout referencing the film's titular beast, I'd swear the film was made with no real animal kingdom foe in mind, as the scenes of the Grizzly attacks are all obvious inserts. Case in point, the film's opening attack; Girdler chooses to go with the obvious point-of-view shot for the stalking beast, even employing a camera angle that would make the bear itself appear 30-feet tall. When the action cuts to a reverse of the intended prey, there's zero glimpse of the beast that should be at least minimally visible in the frame. For obvious reasons, most of the action are shoddy puppet arms, with only in the end viewers getting the payoff of a real Grizzly, played admirably by the mother of Hollywood's most famous Grizzly actor, Bart the Bear.
"Grizzly" is truly a forgettable piece of ill-paced, carelessly written and poorly acted, crap. That said, it's a real hoot to watch and most assuredly the godfather of all the ill-conceived genre imitators that would follow, including Girdler's follow-up utilizing some of the same cast, "Day of the Animals." For fans of killer animal films, "Grizzly" is a hallmark film that while not nearly as hilarious as my personal favorite, another 1976 genre entry, "Dogs," is a sight to behold for its blatant aping of everything Spielberg toiled so long to make "Jaws" a success.THE DVD
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer comes from an HD scan of the original interpositive and looks stunning for a film of its age and budget. There's a healthy dose of natural grain/digital noise that don't subtract one iota from the film's strong detail levels and solid natural color palette. Very little in original print damage becomes an issue during the viewing process and I'd honestly make the argument that the amazing transfer makes "Grizzly" look almost too good for its pedigree.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is not as dynamic as one would hope, but acceptable given the source material. Dialogue is prominent and clean, while the limited use of surrounds builds a tiny bit of atmosphere.
Grizzly comes loaded with a Q&A piece filmed at a New Beverly screening with actor Andrew Prine and Producer David Shelton. "Jaws with Claws" features interviews with Shelton and Prine again, as well as the film's writer and actress Joan McCall. Last but not least is a brief trivia segment as well as a trailer gallery featuring many films you'd find in my local video store's "nature's vengeance" section, including the previously mentioned "Dogs."
A truly stunning visual presentation and competent audio presentation, coupled with a healthy smattering of relevant bonus features, "Grizzly" makes a fine addition to any genre fan's collection. What it lacks in unintentional comedy it makes up for in the gore department (don't misunderstand me though, it's a good step above "Jaws" but still a PG film, albeit a pre-PG-13 era one) and sheer commitment with brining the "Jaws" concept to the forest. Recommended.