The blockbuster success of Jaws famously cleared the way for an explosion of animal-attack horror films. One of the most blatant rip-offs is also one of the best rip-offs, and it’s arriving on Shudder next week. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the woods, behold the terror of Grizzly!
Admittedly, “terror” is a generous descriptor. Unlike Jaws, in which Stephen Spielberg took the time to build suspense (with a mighty assist from John Williams’ pulse-pounding score), 1978’s Grizzly seems well aware that everyone in the audience has seen Jaws and therefore knows exactly what to expect. It gives us a freak-of-nature rogue predator who suddenly starts attacking an unsuspecting human population. It also gives us an even more villainous figure in the form of a government official who selfishly/greedily/diabolically sabotages early efforts to keep as many people safe as possible.
Basically, it succeeds by lifting entire character types and story beats from Jaws—which worked so well for a reason—with a setting change that facilitates just enough newness to keep things interesting. There’s also the fact that Grizzly was made on a smaller budget with less prestigious talent behind the camera. It’s a gold mine for viewers primed to appreciate the (mostly unintentional) humor packed into its dialogue, which is extremely 1978 and contains some absolute howlers.
While Jaws tied its action to a specific resort island community, Grizzly keeps things far more vague, bringing us into a geographically unspecified “National Park.” (A few local landmarks betray its filming location as north Georgia, but it’s never mentioned except in the end credits.) We meet head Park Ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George, whose other credits include Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, slasher classic Graduation Day, and the immortal Pieces), a wounded-tough-guy type who drifted into the gig after a painful divorce. Characters in his orbit include macho helicopter pilot Don (The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s Andrew Prine), who calls women “fillies” (and uses even more cringe-worthy language to describe the enemy soldiers he battled in Vietnam) and gets the Quint moment where he spins a tale of terrifying giant bears past; kooky naturalist Scotty (Richard Jaeckel, whose many credits include another Jaws riff, Mako: The Jaws of Death), who Kelly insists “knows every bear in the forest personally”; and Allison (Devil Times Five’s Joan McCall), a photographer who’s mostly there to exchange flirty barbs with Kelly but vanishes from the story once the action becomes strictly Man Versus Bear. We also get acquainted with Kittridge (Joe Dorsey), the park’s supervisor, who’s somehow hoping to use his position to further his political career; he clashes with Kelly from the start and their relationship largely consists of “You listen!” “No YOU listen!” sorts of arguments.
And, then, of course, there’s real star of Grizzly: the bear itself, purported to be 15 feet tall and weighing 2,000 pounds but represented mostly through lurking POV shots and a hardworking team of foley artists, who load up the soundtrack with heavy breathing, snorts, grunts, and groans. Once in awhile we’ll get a paw swiping at something, and as the film enters its later portion, we’re rewarded with actual bear footage, though very carefully framed in shots that distance the furious beast from actual human actors. That’s one way to avoid Jaws-style prop malfunctions, although dealing with a live bear no doubt brought an entirely different array of behind-the-scenes woes.
Anyway, if you’ve seen Jaws—or are even just mildly familiar with its plot—you know what awaits in Grizzly, which teases its menace in a strikingly memorable theatrical poster created by late comic book legend Neal Adams. Once the bear starts snacking on campers, hikers, park rangers (including one played by Penthouse model Vicki Johnson, whose character strips out of her ranger uniform for a topless frolic through a waterfall before being devoured), and a small child and his mother, it becomes a head-butt between Kelly and Kittridge to close the beaches—uh, the park—before the body count rises any higher. Choice dialogue along the way includes quotables like “Remember, we’re probably not looking for a full body” and “That thing seems to know what we’re thinking!” Grizzly also knows what we’re thinking, because it knows we’re anticipating its every plot twist, but it moves briskly, and its conclusion is even more bleak (though no less, shall we say, explosive) than the end of Jaws.
On the same day that it adds Grizzly to its streaming selections, Shudder is also rolling out Day of the Animals, a 1977 thematic sequel of sorts made by Grizzly director William Girdler and starring Grizzly’s George and Jaeckel. It’s also an animal-attack movie but it leans much more vigorously into sci-fi, imagining that animals (including humans) turn into violent maniacs at high elevations thanks to ozone-layer depletion. As a side note, Girdler was something of a Spielbergian wunderkind in his own right—Spielberg was 27 years old when he made Jaws, and Girdler was 29 when Grizzly came out. Sadly, we never got a chance to see what else he might’ve done in his career; his last film was 1978’s The Manitou, released posthumously after his death at age 30 in a helicopter crash.
Grizzly and Day of the Animals hit Shudder on June 20.
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