Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Film Appreciation - I Remember Grizzly

Guest contributor Matt, a.k.a. God of Thunder, discusses William Girdler's Grizzly (1976) for this week's Film Appreciation.

It’s the spring of 2002, and I’m in the second semester of 4th grade. I’m walking through the massive VHS horror section of my local Blockbuster in Brandon, Mississippi. This was no ordinary Blockbuster; it simply couldn’t have been a corporate store. As I walk, I see such obscure classics as Children of the Full Moon (in that glorious big box), Three on a Meathook, Slaughterhouse, the ultra rare Catalina Video version of Alligator, Crocodile (Ha! The terrific cover is much better than the film.) and many other films of this nature. Naturally I already have the rental box of Ice Cream Man in tow, I had seen that gem a couple months earlier and simply couldn’t get enough of it. Suddenly, I stop at the ‘G’ section, and I notice a video box that has caught my eye for a few years – Grizzly. Huh. That’s one big bear! And that poor woman, she’s just smiling away, completely unaware of that ultra-pissed off behemoth standing right behind her!! Gulp! My decision has finally been made; I’m going to rent this movie finally.

Cut to that night, Im getting ready to crawl in bed for the night and am about to put a movie in. I could watch the trusty Ice Cream Man. After all, it’s yet to get old. But I stare back at that rental box for Grizzly. Huh, it’s PG??? Wow. This movie must not be too bloody. Ya know what? Screw Ice Cream Man. Clint can wait. I pop in the tape for Grizzly and begin to watch. Heh, I figured this might have been a TV movie; it looks more theatrical now. OK…. Ten minutes go by, and hey, there’s some creepy music. And what’s that sound? ‘Huughghgh, hugghghgg.’ Oh no, that can’t be good for that chick in the plaid shirt. But, whatever happens, it must not be too gory. Remember, this is rated PG, Matt, you’ll be good to see some slight blood. And definitely no nudity. OK, now this off-screen menace is right behind her, he’s coming! Wonder how it’ll turn out for her… wait, what the hell? Is that her arm that just flew across the screen??? Oh man, and he’s beating her up too! She’s vomiting blood! And that paw that keeps swiping looks so cool…. Wow, perhaps I underestimated this film?

And so it goes until I finally have to stop the tape to get some rest. I remember right before I hit stop, the movie completely surprises me in a scene I never imagined would be there. In it, a small child is outside playing with a rabbit, his mother coming out to check on him. Aaaw, everything’s going great here. It’s kinda touching. Wait….. no….. there’s that breathing again…. No, movie, you can’t!!!!!! It’s not right! Evidently the movie did not hear me and proceeded. Well, there’s the bear again… he’s comin’… oh no, the kid’s leaving the area! He’ll run right into it!!!! Wait, no, he was just going to get his rabbit, he’s fine. Yep. "RRRRAAAAAUUUGUUGGGGHHH!!!" Whoops, guess not. The bear picked the little tyke up and tore him up a nice bit. The mom comes to the rescue with…. a broom… and tries to thwart the grizzly’s evil intentions. Well, she was a bit too late, because the little bugger comes plummeting to the ground, missing a leg. As the mother looks on in horror, the bear takes the opportunity to devour her as well, all in front of the kid. Whoa…. This was surprisingly brutal. Good choice, Matt.

I go to school the next day, the movie’s all that’s on my mind! I keep reliving each scene in my head as the boring school day drones on and on and on, and simply cannot wait to get home so I can finish it! Wonder how it ends! DIIIIIIIING! Alright, it’s over! Time to get back home and finish this crazy movie. Alright…. Most of the cast just went belly up, the entertaining Quint-lite was bearhugged until he spat blood, and then the main dude blew him to pieces with a rocket launcher!!! Wow!!!! This movie rules!!!!!

The rambling previous paragraphs make up a fair summary of my first encounter with what is very easily one of my most favorite of movies, Grizzly. Indeed, after years of wondering, I finally rented this flick and it took hold of me with an iron grip. I simply could not get enough! The movie was, of course, a slightly jazzed up version of Jaws with a smaller budget, but it was extremely easy to forget about this in the midst of all the action on display. It had a killer cast, cool artwork, a creepy forest location, a raging monster grizzly, and a whole lot more gore than I expected from its PG rating. To say I was immediately blown away would be putting it extremely lightly.

I suppose I should go over the formalities of this reflection. The movie is exceedingly well made for a movie with a less than million dollar budget. William Girdler displays once again his magic behind the camera, the forest scenery is beautiful, and the POV shots for the bear are done to, dare I say it, even better effect than Jaws. The score by Robert O. Ragland is catchy, memorable, and genuinely affective. It’s quite varied as well; the opening titles theme gives a false sense of security to the audience, the theme for the bear is haunting, the thunderous orchestration during the finale will have viewers on the edge of their seats. The acting is generally excellent. Christopher George does the marvelous job that can be expected of him as Ranger Kelly; Richard Jaeckel commands attention as the quirky scientist Arthur Scott; Andrew Prine does a fine job at the tough as nails but likeable Don; and Joe Dorsey will summon the audience’s hatred as the greedy scoundrel Kittridge. The scenes with the bear are quite well edited. There was a real 11’ bear used for most scenes and a (quite crappy looking) mechanical bear used for attack scenes. When you only see the fake paw swipe across the screen, it looks fine, but there are a few instances where the mechanical bear is shown (including one embarrassing silhouette shot in the finale) and… wow. There’s even a subliminal shot right before the grizzly explodes where, if you pause the movie, you can see the fake bear in all its horrid glory. Despite this, you never really will care about any of that and the movie will thoroughly entertain you and likely warrant several re-watches.

I had to own a copy, but believe it or not, it took months for me to even get a copy of the DVD. I had a copy ordered for me off of Amazon; it didn’t come in. I eventually had to dub off a copy from the rental VHS, which I put back to back with the classic metallic werewolf slasher, Project Metalbeast. Eventually, another copy of the DVD came in, a good seven months after I had special ordered, at the rather grotesque price of $17.00. I was happy to own the film, but it certainly was not worth that price… it didn’t have any extras, it had two chapters, it didn’t even have a menu! And it isn’t like it was a masterful presentation of the film, just a rip of the VHS. The cover wasn’t even in color either… talk about a cheap company charging horrific prices! Still, I was happy to finally own a copy of the film, and watched it many, many times as the years passed.

I always was hoping that eventually, some company would purchase the rights to the film and give it a dignified release on disc. This wish was unfulfilled for several years; but in early 2006, my prayers were finally answered: Shriek Show had announced that a widescreen, double disc special edition would be released after seven years of a crap DVD! It took an unbelievably long time to get a copy of this as well, for some reason that eludes me. I believe that it went on backorder initially due to popular demand. Finally, I did manage to obtain a copy of the disc and could barely contain my glee upon opening the case. I popped that sucker in and watched Grizzly as I never had before. It was only then that I realized what a horrid crime against the film that the VHS and earlier DVD both were to this masterpiece: the picture had been cropped beyond belief. This widescreen edition was the epitome of a facelift for the film. The photography was finally allowed to properly shine… and as it turned out, the VHS had cut out a scene of Richard Jaeckel’s corpse lying on the ground later in the movie. Was great to actually see new footage from the film. While I thoroughly enjoyed the DVD and it still ranks among my all-time favorite discs, there was still one other matter that was yet to be seen to…

You see, soon after I had watched the original movie and my mind had been blown, I looked it up on the IMDb to read what other people had to say about it. It was here that I saw the words that amounted to a verbal bombshell: Grizzly II: The Predator. Oh my god… could it really be?!!! I clicked on the title with barely contained joy, hoping to find a bit more info about it. Well, there lay the bad news. The movie was never finished and hadn’t seen any sort of release. And yet there was this review stating about how it had played on TV in the 80’s and was even featured on Joe Bob Briggs’ classic Monstervision show. Well, as it sounds now, that was complete B.S. As it happens, it was also written by my good buddy John, a.k.a. Grizzlyman on various forums. He has since stated that the movie he had seen was Claws (another film that I was quick to purchase after loving Grizzly so much… it was definitely no Grizzly.) which was actually re-released in various territories as a sequel to Grizzly to capitalize on the unsuspected success of the former film (John actually has a lobby card which proves this), but it was definitely not the sequel. For many, many years that review was all the information that anybody had to go on, aside from the rather alarming cast: it featured such recognizable names as Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, Laura Dern, and John Rhys-Davies! Wow!
There was an uplifting turn of events in late 2007, when King of the B-Movie Nuts, Fred Adelman, received a copy of the film from an unidentified source, and posted a review of it on his website, Critical Condition Online. It was there that the real scoop was found: Sheen, Clooney, etc. only had bit parts, Rhys-Davies played the typical ‘Quint’ impersonator, the movie was largely set around a new-wave concert and, most disappointingly, the bear only shows up in the finale of the film, with black screens subbing for bear shots throughout the rest of the film. As shocking as it was, it still gave hope that the movie was in fact out there. Around this time, footage from the movie also began to pop up on YouTube, but they were merely the concert scenes and not a one of them featured the bear or any of the main celebrities involved. But there was an underlying disappointment: those who did have a copy of the film refused to leak it, and it still seemed hopeless for 90% of the people who had waited so long to see it. Finally, in earlier March of this very year, the gold had been struck.

"I’m bi-winning!" cried mega-star turned joke Charlie Sheen. Yes, it had been a wild few months for the winner, and the whole nation was eating up any and everything Charlie Sheen. Then, it finally happened. It took me by complete surprise: Grizzly II had leaked. Finally, after just under a decade of waiting and hoping, this movie was available at last!!! I hurriedly ordered a DVD-R and waited impatiently for it to ship. And one Saturday night, I went to check the mail, and there it was. In my hand. Grizzly II. This day had been long overdue. As I ran back to the house, I felt the biggest movie-related catharsis possible and over-anxiously popped the DVD into my player. And I am happy to tell you folks, the 9 year wait was so f***ing worth it!!!!!!!

Of course, there were the technical errors. The black screens in place of bear shots, the large amount of filler (which definitely would have been cut), the finale basically being a collection of outtakes, etc. but we must remember, this is a workprint: by its very definition, it is flawed. Unfortunate circumstances prevented the film from being completed and I can tell you with full honesty that, had things not gone to hell at the last possible second, it would have no doubt been just as entertaining as the original film, possibly even more so. Of course, at this point, the original Grizzly is simply un-toppable due to the nostalgia overload and warm feeling I get every time I stare at that box cover, but Grizzly II manages to be at least a fun monster movie to the non-judgmental eye. The performances are generally good (Steve Inwood makes an excellent lead character, with John Rhys-Davies fitting the ‘Quint’ of the film perfectly), the photography feels exactly the same way it did in the original, the stock music score is effective. It got the bear roars right this time once again, which play over the black screens and definitely help with the imagination. The bear itself, when it shows up, actually looks quite good - definitely much better than the one in the original. In hindsight, it was likely a huge mistake to not use a real grizzly to film with as the original did, but… it still makes for a fun viewing, and a big part of the experience is finally getting to see something that you thought would never see the light of day. I’m not entirely sure of who leaked this film for us all to see, but thank you. Thank you so much. You made a former 10 year old’s dream come true.

As I type this reflection, I can’t help but remember just how much this movie touched my heart way back in elementary school. It’s very rare that a movie has captivated my soul as much as that one did. There’s certain others: Jaws, E.T., The Brave Little Toaster, Alligator, Truth Or Dare? – A Critical Madness, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Violent Sh*t 2: Mother Hold My Hand and so on, but even in a list as awesome as that, Grizzly still manages to be high in the rankings of not only my all-time favorite movies, but also the most important movies in my time as a movie nut. I highly doubt I’ll ever see another film to magically capture my emotions and leave me with that special, thoroughly satisfied feeling that Grizzly did so long ago. Should I even be proven wrong on that note, I can say with a fact that my first experience with Grizzly is simply irreplaceable and impossible to duplicate. I would not be the same person should it mysteriously vanish one day. And even though William Girdler died long ago, hopefully, through some special movie magic, I’ve communicated my undying appreciation of his 1976 post-Jaws epic to his everlasting spirit. Thanks, Willie.

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