From 1972 to 1978, William Girder directed nine feature films and would have probably never stopped, were it not for the helicopter crash that took his life while scouting Philippines filming locations. From Asylum of Satan and Three on a Meathook to The Manitou, Sheba Baby and Project: Kill, his films may have been derivative but they made money.
Here’s the best example. Around these parts, Girder is celebrated for Abby, a movie that was removed from theaters because of its similarity (let’s say total ripoff) of The Exorcist. That brings us to Grizzly, which is essentially Jaws on dry land. With a bear. A grizzly bear.
Grizzly found its inspiration when its producer and writer, Harvey Flaxman, came face to face with a bear during a camping trip. Co-producer and co-writer David Sheldon thought about how they could make a bear version of Jaws and they wrote a script that Girdler discovered and offered to finance, as long as he could direct.
Grizzly begins with military vet and helicopter pilot Don Stober (Andrew Prine, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, The Eliminators, Amityville II: The Possession) flying over a national park and explaining how the woods remain untouched, much like they were in when Native Americans made their homes here.
The first two attacks happen quickly — in bear POV no less — when two female hikers are dismembered by the ursus arctos horribilis villain of this story. That brings in park ranger Michael Kelly (Christopher George, Gates of Hell/City of the Living Dead, Day of the Animals, Mortuary, Pieces) and photographer Allison Corwin (Joan McCall, who besides being in Devil Times Five is also married to the film’s writer, Sheldon) in on the case.
At the hospital, a doctor tells the park ranger that a bear killed the girls, but the park’s supervisor blames the ranger and naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel, The Dark, Mako: The Jaws of Death and TV’s Salvage 1) for the girls’ deaths. And guess what? Just like Jaws, there’s no way the park is getting closed before tourist season.
The rangers all decide to search the mountain for the grizzly, which isn’t accounted for in their census of animals in the park. One of the rangers — of course — decides to get nude in a waterfall because that’s what you do when you’re hunting a killer bear and gets murked for her stupidity.
Kelly and Stober think they have found the bear from the air, yet its just naturalist Scott wearing an animal pelt and tracking the bear himself. Scott tells them that this bear is actually a prehistoric version of the grizzly that stands 15 feet tall and weighs at least 2,000 pounds.
No matter how many people the grizzly kills, no one will close the park. So when the story becomes national news, the owners of the park — a national park can have owners? — allow amateur hunters to shoot the shark (this has nothing to do with the very same thing happening in Jaws, right?). Those hunters are pretty much the worst people ever, as they use a bear cub as bait, thinking the grizzly will protect its young. Nope — it eats that baby bear and keeps on coming.
The grizzly literally shreds his way through the park and nobody closes it down until it murders a young mother and mutilates her child. And get this — the grizzly is so smart, it knows how to bury the naturalist in the ground and then waits for him to wake up so it can kill him. Can a bear be a slasher killer? Well, we already know that Bigfoot can be, thanks to Night of the Demon.
The grizzly kills every hero in this movie other than Kelly the photographer, who magically finds a bazooka in the wrecked helicopter and remembers the end of every shark movie: you must blow this beast up real good. She does and that’s the end of Grizzly.
An interesting personal note: I was telling my dad about this movie and he remembered that it has played on a bus that took he and my mother on a casino trip. That’s right — at 1 AM, pitch blackness, the TV on their bus blared this gorefest as loudly as possible. “I couldn’t wait for that movie to end,” was my mother’s review. My father’s was a bit kinder.
Warner Brothers originally wanted to finance Grizzly, but were furious that Edward L. Montoro and Film Ventures International (FVI) had taken the project. That’s because a year before, the studio sued both of these companies for copyright infringement when they released Beyond the Door in the US.
Sadly, while Grizzly was one of 1976’s best-performing films, earning $39 million worldwide (adjusted for inflation, that’s around $177 million in 2018 dollars), its distributor Edward L. Montoro and Film Ventures International kept all the profits. Girdler and Harvey Flaxman and David Sheldon (the film’s screenwriters/producers) had to sue to get their share.
Even after all that, Girdler still directed Day of the Animals, a spiritual sequel to Grizzly, for Montoro. While this film added Leslie Nielsen and Lynda Day George to the returning cast of Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel, it wasn’t as successful.
Grizzly just seems like a movie that’s buried in legal shenanigans. A sequel, Grizzly II: The Predator (also known as Grizzly II: The Concert, a title that would assuredly guarantee that I would buy this film) was made in 1983.
Filmed in Hungary by André Szöts and written by Sheldon, the co-producer and writer of the original, it was never released. The film had Louise Fletcher, John Rhys-Davies and unknowns but about to be big stars like Charlie Sheen (who took this movie over the lead in Karate Kid), George Clooney and Laura Dern in the cast, as well as live performances (hence Grizzly II: The Concert) by musicians like Toto Coelo (who had one song I can name, “I Eat Cannibals Part 1”) and Landscape III.
The movie was such a mess that the film’s caterer ended up rewriting it. And while the main filming was completed, special effects and all of the actual bear footage wasn’t. That’s because the film’s executive producer Joseph Proctor had disappeared with the money (and may have even been already jailed when filming began). While a mechanical bear was to be used, there was still footage shot of a live bear attacking concert goers filmed (!). There’s a bootleg workprint, but the full film has ever emerged. This New York Post article has even more amazing info about Grizzly 2.
Finally, a trivia note for comic book fans. The amazing poster for this movie? Neal Adams did the art.