Monsters and Matinees: A lifetime of being terrorized by ‘Grizzly’

Not all movie monsters fade away with the end credits.

They might make a lasting impression because of their greatness (Universal monsters), uniqueness (The Blob) or silliness (Attack of the Killer Shrews). They can feed on our fears or leave us with new ones like being afraid to swim in the ocean (Jaws).

In extreme cases, they leave us with life-long phobias that have no basis in reality. Take me for example: I’m terrified of quicksand (from watching Tarzan movies), walking into another dimension (The Twilight Zone) and seeing an apparition behind me in a mirror (too many films to mention).

The jaws of death in Grizzly, a 1976 horror film that owes a lot to the classic Jaws.

My biggest irrational fear: being mauled to death by a bear.

I stay clear of bear exhibits at zoos and other attractions. I don’t go near the woods and certainly won’t camp out overnight. Even staying in a cabin isn’t an option because bears can break windows and knock down walls. I know it’s true because it happened in Grizzly.

The 1976 creature feature about a powerful bear who could rip through barriers, was resistant to guns and as smart as humans was so terrifying that I watched it only once as a kid and never again. Yet an extreme fear of being a Grizzly victim stays with me today.

Family and friends laugh about it. They send birthday cards with pictures of bears and forward bear memes and articles. It became, pun intended, too much to bear. Finally, it was time to face this fear and that meant going back to where it started: to Grizzly. Would it be as horrifying to watch as an adult as my childhood memories led me to believe? I was surprised at the answer.

The movie

Grizzly opens with a nice helicopter ride over a national park. The pilot is talking to two senators about needing the government’s help in protecting national parks from campers and the damage they do. (Bad things always follow a speech like that.)

Suddenly, a lovely musical score by Robert O. Raglan (performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra of London, no less) begins to soar along with the gorgeous overhead shots of picturesque mountains, forests and streams. It’s serene and romantic – are we watching a travel video or a horror film? Both. (That music returns again and again and was one of the surprises of rewatching the Grizzly.)

Cut to the busy town below that’s overrun by backpackers and campers despite it being off season. There are so many that Forest Ranger Michael Kelly (played by Christopher George) has brought his crew together to deal with the problem. “We’ve got more backpackers pitching tents than raccoons in the woods,” quips one of the rangers.

An innocent camper becomes the first victim of the title character in Grizzly.

They’ve got a right to be concerned because those backpackers are about to meet the title character.

Two young female campers are the first victims and authorities are perplexed. Perhaps the girls got too close to a cub (save that for Grizzly II). Or the bear was hungry.

“But bears don’t eat people!” Ranger Kelly insists.

“This one did,” the coroner replies.

Leading the hunt for the bear, Ranger Kelly is joined by war veteran and our helicopter pilot Don Stober (played by Andrew Prine) and the park’s naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) who camouflages himself in animal hide and arrives with bad news.

As Ranger Kelly, Christopher George makes it his mission to find the deadly Grizzly.

“We’ve got a grizzly – and then some,” Scott says. It’s at least 15-feet tall – twice the normal size, judging by its claw marks on a tree – and weighs more than 2,000 pounds. That massive size can mean only one thing: It’s an ancestor of the Arctodus ursus horribilis – the mightiest carnivore during the Pleistocene era.  

“What is a million-year-old grizzly doing here?” he’s asked.

“He’s looking for food,” Scott replies.

The film gets into a routine from there: People hunt the grizzly. The grizzly hunts the people. Someone dies. Someone does something stupid. Someone else dies. The hunt continues and it starts again.

This is not a movie where bodies are simply discovered either. Each death is telegraphed, with the tension building as the grizzly stalks its intended victim. The music abruptly becomes ominous. We see the clueless victim from the grizzly’s point-of-view. The grizzly grunts, huffs, growls yet only the viewer hears him. (“Run!” we scream in our heads. “Run!”)

There’s not much a human can do against a bear that stands at least 15 feet tall and can take on a helicopter as in this scene from Grizzly.

Immense claws pound the ground as the grizzly gets closer, the music speeds up. It’s intense. There’s none of that fake “teen popping up in a bear costume” schtick to lighten things up, either. (The film’s only comic relief is a scene of backpackers running down the mountain as an evacuation order is announced.)

At multiple points you’ll think “Oh no … the bear is not going to kill (fill in the blank).” Oh, yes it will – this bear is heartless and will claim more victims than you might imagine before it is done.

And it may remind you of another movie monster.

Borrowing inspiration from a classic

On its release, Grizzly was ripped apart for being an unabashed copy of Jaws, made a year earlier.

Judging from the film’s poster that proclaims “The most dangerous Jaws in the land,” it seems the studio would relish the comparison.

In addition to a similar plot (just insert bear for shark), the characters are the same. We see the Roy Scheider authority figure in Christopher George; the grizzled Robert Shaw shark hunter in Richard Jaeckel’s naturalist; the Richard Dreyfuss role is now the pilot who wants to protect nature; and the mayor who won’t close the beach is the park supervisor who, you guessed it, won’t shut down the park.

Grizzly isn’t anywhere near as good, of course. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that it was “such a blatant imitation of Jaws that one has to admire the depth of the flattery it represents, though not the lack of talent involved.”

While my second viewing made those Jaws comparisons clear, that didn’t matter to the adult me who still finds creature features entertaining even if the effects and story don’t hold up.

Let’s take the nightmarish images of bloodied limbs flying across the screen that have haunted me since that first fateful viewing. Today those scenes look so phony you can picture the person just off camera throwing the fake prosthetics. Yet it didn’t matter. It was the idea that a bear could rip your arm or leg off that terrified me, not the ketchup-like blood and the fake arm.

And there was the crux of my lifelong phobia of bears. No matter how weak the movie or how fake the effects may have looked, it was the idea that one of those large claws could slice through my flesh and bone while I walked through the woods picking flowers that was terrifying.

It’s something I could never have imagined without seeing Grizzly. It doesn’t matter that today I see the movie with the flaws I never noticed as a child, the result is the same. Watching Grizzly today didn’t ease my fear of bears, it solidified it. This city-dweller still won’t take chances when it comes to bears.

A long-awaited sequel

Grizzly may have been bashed by critics, but not by moviegoers. Made for only $750,000, it was a financial hit as it pulled in $39 million. Money talks so there was a sequel. If you never heard of it, that makes sense since it would take 37 years to make it to the screen.

Grizzly II: Revenge, also called Grizzly II: The Predator and Grizzly II: The Concert, grew to film folklore after sitting on the shelf for nearly four decades. Part of the curiosity about the film grew because of the brief appearances by future stars George Clooney, Laura Dern and Charlie Sheen. (Given their stardom today, the trio was given top billing in the film and on the posters.)

A young Laura Dern and George Clooney are about to meet a very angry bear in Grizzly II: Revenge.

It was filmed in Hungary in 1983 by André Szöts, whose only other directing credit was a TV movie titled Vasárnap Budapesten.

The story is simple: After poachers kill a cub, a mama grizzly goes on the attack – at a rock concert. (The filmmakers staged a rock concert in Hungary for the film that also stars John Rhys-Davies and Louise Fletcher.)

But a producer left early in filming, taking money with him. There were behind-the-scenes fights. And the mechanical bears either broke down or were stolen, depending on the report you read.

The film remained unreleased until producer Suzanne C. Nagy cut through the legalities, added some stock footage, trimmed it a bit, played up the appearances by Clooney, Dern and Sheen and premiered Grizzly II: Revenge at the 2020 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. The reviews have not been kind as it was called a “grievous sequel” by the New York Times and “a terribly shot, badly dubbed, weirdly framed, disjointed rip-off of Jaws,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Judge for yourself. Both Grizzly and Grizzly II: Revenge are available to watch through streaming and rental services.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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