Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Grizzly
We’re taking a break from Roger Corman and Jim Wynorski for a bit. We still love them, of course, but we’ve hit something of a wall in regards to Wynorski. Watching Big Bad Mamma II illustrated for us that by 1988, Wynorski’s more innocent and goofy style was changing. Corman trusted him with more money and he no longer needed the plucky, quirky spirit to compensate. We may eventually come back to that film as our survey of his work continues — and it will continue at least until the moment we get completely bored with him — but the relative quality of Big Bad Mamma II meant it was time to re-evaluate our calendar. It also suggested to us the perfect opportunity to dive back into one of the great cheesy movie pleasures: Jaws rip-offs.
As mentioned previously, producers were quick to seize upon the formula of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic. We’ve already profiled Orca and Tentacles as two of the more notable knock-offs made in its wake. But we’ve avoided what might be the first of these films until now. An Italian production may have beaten it to the box office, but Grizzly is your weekend cheesy movie precisely for being an early Jaws ripoff.
The plot concerns Micheal Kelly (Christopher George) a mountain ranger in an unnamed national park. He’s seemingly well-liked by his subordinates and he appears to be making time with visiting photographer Allison Corwin (Joan McCall), whose father runs the park’s major restaurant. Life in the park seems fun and carefree until two hikers are mauled to death by large bear. Kelly immediately wants to close the park, but park supervisor Charley Kittridge (Joe Dorsey) strenuously disagrees, blaming Kelly for missing a bear when he and naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) lured the rest of the bear population into the high country early in the season. Kelly calls in Scott to help him track down the wayward bear, but keeps missing the creature as it tears into other campers and a park ranger.
Kelly again asks Kittridge to close the park, but he instead opens it up to amateur hunters. One group manages to capture a bear cub to bait what they assume is its mother. The bear eats the cub, leading Scott to assume the animal is male as only male bears become cannibals. Additionally, a local medical examiner tells them the bite marks on the victims suggests the bear is a prehistoric grizzly bear 15 feet in height.
The bear finally makes it way into town, killing a woman and severely mauling her son. Kittridge is finally shamed into closing the park, leaving Kelly, Scott and local helicopter pilot Don Stober (Andrew Prine) to hunt the bear on their own.
And if this plot sounds suspiciously similar to Jaws, that’s part of the charm. Producer/Writer Harvey Flaxman claimed to have had a close encounter with a bear while on vacation. His producing partner, David Sheldon, thought the bear might be a clever way to re-engineer the plot of Jaws and court some of its success. At the box office, it proved true. The film was the biggest grossing independent film of all time until Halloween unseated it in 1978. But critics found its wholesale duplication of Jaws plot an irreconcilable offense; further suggesting Grizzly was the first Jaws rip-off to hit the market.
Certainly, its cut-and-paste plotting is its cheesiest aspect. It features versions of scenes you will remember from Jaws like when the mayor (er, Kittridge) tells Brody (er, Kelly) he cannot close the beach (park). A scene roughly halfway through Grizzly sees Stober telling Kelly and Scott about the time a grizzly ate the people he was hiking with — a lesser man’s version of the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech. Grizzly even replicates Jaws‘s explosive ending — although it uses a rocket launcher to blow up the bear instead of an compressed air tank. But beyond its copying, cheese can be found in the way director William Girdler tried to vary the story to avoid some of the inevitable deja vu. Some of the deaths are far more graphic, although they are hampered by quick cuts covering for the fact the bear (a Kodiak called Teddy who performed his scenes for marshmallow treats) and the actor were shot on different days. Close-ups of mauled faces pepper the runtime while the bear’s simulated growl punctuates scenes even when it is not eating some unfortunate hiker or ranger.
That growling is important as it breaks up the incredible amount of inaction between death scenes. Flaxman and Girdler try their best to build the world, much like Jaws has characters like Mayor Vaughn, Harry Wiseman of bad hat fame, Ben Gardner, Mrs. Taft and Hendricks breathing life into Amity. Grizzly tries to vary this with a romantic tension between Kelly and Allison. Although the scenes between George and McCall always feel half-hearted. Maybe their friendship isn’t meant to be more than that, but the film is oddly ambiguous in that regard. Meanwhile, the supporting characters of the unnamed park fail to take on a life like Amity’s citizens and the talking scenes offer very little in terms of setting a mood or building a world.
And just as Amity disappears in the last third of Jaws, characters like Kittridge, Allison, and the various amateur hunters all fall away well before the boy gets mauled and the key trio of men set off into the woods. In Jaws‘s case, the Amity characters stay alive in your mind even as Brody, Quint and Hooper fight the shark. In Grizzly, you’d be hard-pressed to remember Allison’s father by the time Kelly has to use the rocket launcher.
Which isn’t to say Grizzly is particularly lazy or cynical. Girdler campaigned to become the director and even secured the film’s funding to insure his chance at the helm. But he’s obviously no Spielberg and editors Bub Asman and Christopher Ness are certainly not Verna Fields. Their choices in matching cuts, staccato rhythms to imply the bear attacks, and repeated shots of the bear to suggest menace (when he’s really just waiting for his trainer to toss him a marshmallow) reveal just how difficult it is to cut an effective “animal attacks” movie. Girdler, meanwhile, gives the film a 1970s TV movie blandness, as though Grizzly‘s main objective was to fill two hours in CBS’s spring schedule instead of scare people like Jaws. It ends up oddly tranquil for a film with so many bear attacks.
The result is both a strangely academic look at how not to make Jaws and an excellent way to fall asleep. Grizzly may be one of the first cheesy movies we’ve discussed with a “may induce drowsiness” warning on the label, but it is still worth checking out to see how close an independent producer could get to copyright theft without getting sued.
Grizzly is available on Amazon Prime Video with a subscription or for rent. It is also available on disc media if you still collect physical totems.