Few movies can claim to have the impact of Jaws. In addition to scaring people away from the beach, Steven Spielberg re-defined blockbuster movie-making. And yes, Jaws had a pretty adverse effect on the shark population. Though eco-horror movies were around before its release, Jaws predictably triggered a wave of killer animal movies. It didn’t even matter if the movie was set in the ocean – studios scrambled to find the next apex predator. One of those rip-offs, Grizzly, at least had a plausible animal antagonist. But that didn’t help win over critics in 1976.
When a grizzly bear attacks and kills two hikers in a National Park, the ranger turns to a helicopter pilot and naturalist to hunt it down.
Grizzly Doesn’t Even Pretend It’s Not a Jaws Ripoff
What else can you say about Grizzly? The above synopsis is pretty generous. If Grizzly’s screenplay was a college paper, it’d get raked over the coals for plagiarism. That two writers – Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon – labored on this Jaws ripoff is more shocking than anything in the movie. The basic story structure is the same. Specific plot beats are the same. Even some of the dialogue sounds like variations on things said in Jaws. Other eco-horror movies ripped off the Spielberg classic. But none of these movies did it quite as shamelessly as Grizzly.
…Grizzly dutifully checks off the boxes.
Each act of Grizzly patterns itself after the Great White Shark thriller. First, there’s the three principals characters – the beleaguered local park ranger, the bear expert, and the military veteran helicopter pilot. If these character types are too subtle, Flaxman and Sheldon are sure to include an ‘oh so’ serious monologue that feels pretty similar in tone to Quint’s memories of the USS Indianapolis shark attacks. Grizzly also boasts an unscrupulous politician hamstringing the trio’s hunt for the bear. Throw in a scene or two of novice bear hunters messing things up and an attack on a young boy and Grizzly dutifully checks off the boxes. Director William Girdler even tells Jaws to hold its beer with a ridiculous climax. Without spoiling too much … it involves a bazooka because that was apparently standard issue for park rangers in the 1970s.
Grizzly Never Convincingly Puts Its Man-Eater on the Screen
Perhaps what ‘elevates’ Grizzly to ‘so bad, it’s good’ status is Girdler’s direction alongside the effects and editing. At no point does Girdler ever wink at the audience or steer the movie towards self-aware silliness. That is, Grizzly takes itself very seriously. As a result, it’s arguably more hilarious the first time you see what is clearly a man wearing a costume bear paw attacking a hiker. Although a real Kodiak bear stands in for the titular man-eater, it’s awkwardly inserted into the attack scenes via choppy editing. Flying limbs look like rubber props. And the music score is completely at odds with the tone Girdler is trying to establish. At least Grizzly is never boring – it moves along at a brisk pace.
Although a real Kodiak bear stands in for the titular man-eater, it’s awkwardly inserted into the attack scenes via choppy editing.
Somehow Grizzly roped in decent veteran character actors to fill out its cast. Maybe their agents thought this eco-thriller was the next Jaws. But Christopher George (Mortuary, Pieces), Andrew Prine (The Evil, V – The Final Battle), and Richard Jaeckel do what they can with the material. While no one will confuse them for Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, or Richard Dreyfuss, they’re better than the movie itself. Flaxman and Sheldon’s screenplay can’t even consistently define their lead protagonists. The result is characters saying or doing things that occasionally feel contradictory to what’s been previously established.
Grizzly Proves Imitation Isn’t Always the Most Sincere Form of Flattery
No, Grizzly isn’t a homage to Jaws. It’s a Grade-Z rip-off that imitates nearly every plot point from the Spielberg classic. Just don’t expect that same creative talent or budget behind the camera to make it work. No amount of editing – well-executed or not – can hide the fact that the bear is never close to any of the cast. While there’s no boom mics present on screen, you don’t have trouble telling when the real bear apart from the stunt actor wearing a bear suit arm. What separates Grizzly from just plain bad movies is the complete earnestness in its approach to the material. If the veteran characters actors could keep straight faces while rubber limbs flew across the screen, then why can’t we enjoy the move for what it is – pure cheesy B-movie fun.