"The most dangerous jaws on land" take a bite out of the forest in William Girdler's GRIZZLY, on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing as part of their limited edition line exclusively from Screen Archives.
When the Indian Springs national park is suddenly beset by a series of grizzly bear attacks, ranger Kelly (Christopher George, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) has park supervisor Kittridge (Joe Dorsey, WARGAMES) on his case since tagging all of his district's bears and transporting them up north where there is plenty of food was his responsibility. At first, the question is what has brought one of the bears back down from the mountains, until eccentric naturalist Scott (Richard Jaeckel, STONEY) examines the attack sites and declares that they are up against a two-thousand pound, fifteen foot grizzly bear. Publicity-minded Kittridge does not buy the grizzly story and goes over Kelly's head, inviting hillbilly hunters in to track the bear and posing a danger not only to all of the park's wildlife but also the rangers. When the grizzly makes its way to town and attacks a mother and child, Kelly and pilot Don (Andrew Prine, NIGHTMARE CIRCUS) take it upon themselves to track the grizzly back into the mountains to destroy it even as Scott has gone off on his own to attempt to capture the bloodthirsty wonder of nature.
The biggest theatrical hit of William Girdler, an ambitious young Kentucky-born filmmaker who made a string of well-distributed regional flicks staring with ASYLUM OF SATAN and THREE ON A MEATHOOK before achieving notoriety with the American International-distributed "black EXORCIST" film ABBY which was promptly withdrawn when Warner Bros. filed a lawsuit and unavailable officially since then, GRIZZLY was one of two "animals attack" films Girdler mounted, the superior one being DAY OF THE ANIMALS which also featured George and Jaeckel. Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash at the age of thirty while scouting locations for his next film following most luxuriously-budgeted film THE MANITOU (which was released after his death). I first caught GRIZZLY on television in the 1990s and was completely unprepared for the limb-ripping and face-clawing; a bear claw glove reaching in the frame and grabbing people was about the most you saw on TV prints at that point (although Katarina Leigh Waters intimates in the PG rating might have fooled television broadcasters so some of the violence might have gotten through to seventies and eighties airings).
Although a hit for Girdler and distributor Film Ventures (according to Waters, GRIZZLY was the most successful independent horror film at the box office until John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN broke its record two years later), the film is more laughable than terrifying. Girdler, his cameraman, and his editor cannot quite make us believe that the live grizzly bear (the same grizzly later used in DAY OF THE ANIMALS, and also the mother of "Bart the Bear" from THE GREAT OUTDOORS, LEGENDS OF THE FALL, and THE BEAR among others) ever shares the same frame with the actors (with victims getting the "bear hug" from a suited double). The dramatics between the usually top-of-their-game George and Dorsey are contrived by the script, while the buddy scenes of George, Prine, and Jaeckel compare poorly to those in JAWS. Shot just before DAY OF THE ANIMALS, GRIZZLY's production value is in the exploitation cast, the helicopter (and aerial shots), and the score of Robert O. Ragland (THE SUPERNATURALS) performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Girdler regular cinematographer William Asman's Todd-AO photography is full of bumpy tracking and crane shots, while the shallow focus of some two shots seem to have more to do with low lighting than a foreground/background rack focus setup (in a couple intimate scenes, George or McCall have only to move an inch or two off their marks to go out of focus), a lack of fill lighting during some of the sunny exteriors results in some harsh contrasts while the older anamorphic lenses seem more prone to flare here (wide angles also exhibit bowing along straight lines). DEVIL TIMES FIVE's Joan McCall – who was married to the film’s co-writer/producer David Sheldon (Girdler's 'SHEBA BABY) – plays George's plucky love interest while the film's other co-writer/producer Harvey Flaxman also plays a "the public has a right to know" sensationalist news reporter.
Released on VHS in a panned-and-scanned transfer by Media Home Entertainment, GRIZZLY first hit DVD in what was probably the same master from the late nineties budget label DVD Video which licensed a number of Film Ventures titles from their current rights owner including DAY OF THE ANIMALS, DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE, and THE GRIM REAPER (all from old video masters). Media Blasters' Shriek Show two-disc DVD edition fared better than their DAY OF THE ANIMALS release due to better source materials (Scorpion's DAY release would benefit from the recovery of the film's IP which was apparently not available earlier on), and had a number of extras including a commentary (moderated by Scorpion's Walt Olsen) featuring co-star McCall and her co-writer/producer husband Sheldon, a forty-minute retrospective featurette, an original promotional featurette, among others. Scorpion's 2014 dual-layer disc featured a progressive, anamorphic, 2.35:1 widescreen transfer from a brand new HD master. It doesn't impress as much as DAY OF THE ANIMALS' HD bump-up, but that has much to do with the original photography with exteriors and shadowy daytime shots evincing more grain from underexposure. In addition to the clean Dolby Digital 2.0 rendering of the original mono track, the disc also included – like Scorpion's DAY OF THE ANIMALS release – a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround remix that spreads out some of the nature sounds and gives greater breadth to Ragland's score.
Scorpion's 2015 Blu-ray – available exclusively from Screen Archives and limited to 3,000 copies – features both filtered and unfiltered encodes of the film on a BD50. The filtered version cleans up all of the various dings and spots evident through the unfiltered version, but it can do very little for the aforementioned weaknesses inherent in the original photography. Unlike some other discs which offer unfiltered versions, the filtered version has not been sandblasted of grain, so the preference of filtered or unfiltered is subjective. Both versions can be played with the original, rich mono mix in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 as well as DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix which spreads out Ragland's sweeping sore, the bear roars, gunshots, and Prine's helicopter, or an isolated music and effects track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.
Other than the isolated music and effects track, the rest of the extras are carried over from the Scorpion DVD. Although the film does not feature a "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" wraparound, hostess Katarina Leigh Waters does appear in a "Fun Facts and Trivia" (8:13) segment which opens with a sketch in which she is mauled by a stuffed bear. She covers the careers of Girdler, George, Jaeckel, Prine, and McCall, as well as the titular grizzly (and her progeny), the film's box office success, and GRIZZLY II: THE PREDATOR with Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, and Laura Dern shot in Hungary but left unfinished when the producer disappeared with the funds to do the bear effects. Prine and Sheldon appear in a Q&A Session at the New Beverly (12:06) during a double bill of the film with SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES. Sheldon discusses the film's debt to JAWS as well as a co-writer Flaxman's camping story of a bear scare, and his original intention to direct the film himself (he had a deal with Girdler that they would alternate directing, but Girdler said he could raise the money himself for it if he directed himself). Rather than wait for the studio development deal, they got the production going in three weeks and recalls that they had to use the live bear more often than planned because the mechanical bear had been left in the rain. Prine keeps the audience in stitches with his recollections about the production (including playing his scene with the bear hungover).
The Scorpion releases drop the commentary but have retained the "Jaws and Claws" featurette (36:39). Sheldon discusses the luck of being the first animals attack picture on the screen after JAWS, and recalls the anecdote about Flaxman's camping trip. Flaxman himself elaborates on the story and how quickly they got the script outlined, written, and rewritten. Sheldon and Girdler had split amicably after PROJECT: KILL, and Sheldon recalls Girdler's excitement when he saw the script and his offer to put the funding together with him in the director's chair. Flaxman recalls Girdler's relationship with Film Ventures' Edward L. Montero and their knowledge of other projects being developed in the wake of JAWS. Prine recalls being cast and sent on location without a script – his agent told him the film was basically JAWS – and recalls the grizzly in awe and how the production kept an electrified wire between the bear and the actors to protect them. The script was meant to be set in the summer, so Sheldon recalls that they had to melt the snow on the locations they were shooting at and avoid capturing trees that had lost their leaves on camera. The writers/producers also recall that Girdler couldn't handle all of the film himself on a four week schedule so Flaxman would shoot all of the extras scenes with the hunters and onlookers while Sheldon shot the bits with the bear (also discussing the mechanical bear which didn't match the live one). Sheldon discusses the tricks of getting the bear to act by baiting it with meat to roar while Prine had to throw it pieces of bread to come towards him in the shots where it is about to attack him. McCall recalls the cold shooting conditions and working with Christopher George and their unused love scene. William Girdler himself is heard in clips from the original promotional featurette discussing interaction with the bear and the challenges of shooting on location. The Scorpion DVD had two theatrical trailers for the film (1:09 + 2:20) while the Blu-ray features only the first. (Eric Cotenas)
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