A subject of terror, doubt, and insecurity since time immemorial, Nature has enjoyed a prominent position in the nightmares of our frail race since primal Man sat down to sleep for the night and heard something growl in the dark. Nature, the cauldron of life from which we are born (and into which we return), is life and mortality personified. While less important to us in our self-deceiving urban superiority than it was to our ancestors (hunter-gatherers/farmers whose very lives depended on the fertility of the land) Nature at its least reminds us as a culture how very weak and ineffectual we are. At its worst, it maims, cripples, and kills.
Whereas primal man attempted to face and/or exorcise his fears in the oral tradition of storytelling, we share our culturally shared terrors through the vicarious instrument of the silver screen. And what more effective representation of savage death than the wild animal? Wild enough that it is distinct from us, inspiring fear, it's familiar enough to reflect the internal rage and hunger seething just below the surface of our respectability. Animals of streams, forests, plains, or backwoods represent the raw threat of nature that we both fear and fantasize about. Symbolizing the aspects of the natural world that we have not yet conquered (and never will), animals are embodiments of what we began as (and therefore representative of our savage roots and hidden violent/sexual instincts) and that unknowable, untameable freedom from responsibility, law or morality that we both desire and fear.
How natural, then, that wild animals are such perfect subjects for horror and exploitation films. Both fascinating and frightening, Nature -- as both environment and the wild life within it -- have long proved a crucial sub-form of exploitation filmmaking. From the threat of rabid animals to celluloid imaginings of creatures who never existed, from the furry fanged menaces of folklore to the gators of the underground sewers, nature in the movies is unstoppable, untameable, and doesn't put up with any shit! As capable of getting to you in the big city as it is in a little rural town, wildlife, Nature's Green Berets, will track you down. Nature-ran-amock movies appeal to the low budget filmmaker as much as they do to the audience hungry for spectacle. Perhaps no one knew this better, and used it to such exploitative effect, than William Girdler.
A poet of poverty productions, Girdler was also an undeniably effective showman. Accomplishing more with a few dollars than contemporary movie makers can with millions, his lack of funding, small prep times, and threadbare stories did little to hamper the creativity, spirit, or surprising polish of his features. Pretending to be nothing else than what he was, Girdler wore the Exploitation hat with pride and fighting spirit. He was in the business to make movies that entertained, films that provoked feelings of shock, suspense, awe, and laughter - not subtle documents of characterization. Yet his action riddled, hair-raising spectacles often include reflection amidst all the mayhem, poignant philosophical questionings of such things as law, justice, and order alongside bloody manglings.
William Girdler was just as effective a thinker as he was a cinematic terrorist using profound, jarring images of fear and wonder to shock audiences into reaction. If he could shock them into thought as well, that was fine! His nature amuck films, particularly the two we deal with here, are impossible to watch without realizing something of the deeper points underlying the action. Beneath break-neck (and bared fangs) surface action runs thematically rich condemnations of modern culture's attitude of waste, arrogance, political abuse, social prejudice, and, perhaps strongest of all, a warning to watch out which twig you're pissing on - there might just be something bigger than you are watching.
That's certainly the case in what is perhaps his best, most accomplished film if not his most popular. A joyful, honest rip-off of many of the storylines, characters, and conventions of Jaws (as were such films as Joe Dante's Piranha and just about every other nature amuck flick to come out in the seventies), Grizzly isn't only Jaws with bear paws, it's Night of the Living Dead with bigger teeth! Instead of a group of survivors trapped in a farmhouse warding off the living dead, we have in Grizzly a group of just as believable folks in the more threatening context of the forest desperately trying to survive a giant bear. All joking aside, Girdler's ode to the friendship/survival horrors of Jaws captures much of that film's tension on less budget. Besides showing (once again) how creativity, vision, and old fashioned stubbornness is so much more important than digital effects or money, Grizzly emphasizes Girdler's general artistry and attention to detail. More importantly, the quality of the film as both exploitative shocker and story of meaningful human relationships shows us a director who knows as much about the nature of friendship and sacrifice as he does about techniques of shocking.
A cyclone of short-lived but highly effective showmanship, Girdler accomplished a distinctive body of work in eight years. Working frenziedly from 1971 to his untimely death in 1978 (at 30) when a helicopter scouting locations for his next film went down, Girdler directed about nine movies, many of them starring professional actors. 1976's Grizzly, an economical success, also remains an artistic one, as this lovingly restored 30th Anniversary special edition shows. Making something new with genre conventions, this entertainingly visual vivisection drips with blood and style, action and terror. Creating a maximum of mayhem on a measly 4 week schedule, Girdler wisely employs shots of a real (trained) Grizzly bear with shots of a man in bear drab, with the most effective actor perhaps being the giant, wicked-looking claw that slashes, gashes, and grabs unsuspecting campers in the dead of night.
A resourceful Park Ranger (Christopher George) matches wits against an eighteen foot, two thousand pound Grizzly who is terrorizing hikers and campers at a state park. Complicated by the politically corrupt Park Supervisor (Joe Dorsey) and droves of alcoholic hunters, the Ranger's intentions prove ineffectual. When the bear kills again (campers, rangers, hunters and a little boy with his mother), the ranger employs his nature-knowing friend (Richard Jaeckel) to help him find and tranquilize the bear. Of course the bear is stronger than either of them expect, and a cycle of bloody mayhem ensues in lovely exploitative fashion.
This story, while certainly nothing new in terms of structure or theme, is reinvented by the director's individualistic vision, assured directorial style, and ability to tease just the right actions and reactions form the experienced cast. Emotional moments of friendship and loss add complexity to the narrative and further emotional involvement to the moments of jarring violence. Girdler exposes a surprising amount of brutality, mirroring the naturalist sentiments of the picture. In realistic fashion the violence is savage, bloody, and hurts in a deeper level than most exploitation is capable of evoking. Because the intelligent script is breathed to life by such a fine cast, we feel we really know these people, and when their lives are out in harm's way, we fear and hate and struggle with them - and if that isn't what film is for, I'll go tickle a grizzly's hairy ass!
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Shriek Show's presentation of Grizzly beautifully captures the lush nature photography, shaming past VHS and cheaply made DVD editions. Very little grain is present, and that which is doesn't distract from the framing, movement, or composition of the shots. Mono audio (with optional Spanish language) is clear and crisp.
Shriek Show's extras provide a history of both Girdler and the making of the film, providing us with intensive historical and social context through its masterful use of multimedia. Spread across two discs, perhaps the most significant feature is a commentary between producer/co-screenwriter David Sheldon and actress Joan McCall. Moderated by Walt Olsen, this audio track is a treasure of odd trivia and fact, discussing a cut nude scene of Vicki Johnson, McCall's love scene with George, and some of the excitement which drove the production. A trailer rounds out the first disc of goodies. The second disk proudly presents us with a dated yet thoughtful documentary obviously made as an industry promotion during the film's heyday, which is also rather haunting with footage of the late Gilder. "Jaws with Claws," an exclusive feature, interviews Sheldon, McCall, Harvey Flaxman, and actor Andrew Prine. Discussing in depth the production, planning, and acting of the film, as well as more personal tidbits, such as personal memories of Girdler. The dependable Media Blasters trailers, a photo gallery, and a generous amount of radio spots complete this fitting tribute to an exploitation pioneer.
If nature runs amuck in the guise of a giant Grizzly bear in Grizzly, it explodes in Gilder's follow up eco-thriller, Day of the Animals. Coming at a time when the Western world was first awakening to the deadly possibility of a polluted, chaotic world, with the balance between nature and society shattered by its inborn greed, commercialism, and greed, this thriller was as frightening for its implications as it was for inspired horror imagery and truly suspenseful set pieces. When the depletion of the ozone layer (a very real threat, and one which, at the time, was a pertinent cause of contention) causes animals above the altitude of 5000 feet to turn on mankind, hunting the woods and urban streets for blood! A group of hikers, led by the always reliable Christopher George, find themselves caught in the wilderness with deadly, rabid, and disturbingly intelligent wolves, birds of prey, snakes, bears, and worse of all . . . each other!.
Starring Christopher George as a nature guide, this deadly serious, realistically acted and shot film is an attack against self-satisfied civilization; it is just as much an attack against stereotypes, revealing how thin is the polite skin of respectability and politeness which separates us from both each other and the raw animalism of our true, bare natures. At its best, this wet and wild slice of exploitation greatness is a lifting of the already frail layers of respectability and compassion which we hide behind. Girdler layers savage horror scenes and our primal terror of animals (and nature in general) with scathing social commentary, turning his penetrative eyes on the intolerance, abuses, ignorance, and inborn savagery of the human animal. It is telling that the small group of campers stuck together far inside the forest of a mountain revert back to their animalistic passions and sense of savagery as soon as their roles and sense of normality - their sense of security and fair play - is challenged.
Chaos breeds among the initially playful, friendly, and helpful group of hikers as soon as the societal conventions and law which they have depended on since birth to define their world and their own place in it is replaced by a return to the savage law of the strong. This theme is perhaps best emphasized in one of the movie's craziest, wildest, and most enjoyable over-the-top scenes when one of the less savory characters, falling victim to the same toxins in the air that has turned the animals savage, allows what little civility he has to slip away and gives free reign to the beast within. A metaphor for the entire film, his character is society in miniature; barely restrained throughout the early portion of the film, rude and obnoxious and obviously oblivious of other people's pains in order to get what he wants, it's disturbing to see how very little it takes for him the become as bad (if not worse) than the wolves and bears around them. The scene where he murders one of his fellow campers and rapes another, he is humanity back in the cave. And when he attempts to put a bear in a bear-hug the movie reaches surrealist proportions!
An emotionally scathing, lyrical, and wholly involving movie of murderous mayhem and all too human monsters, Girdler's ode to the great outdoors is at once both pure exploitation and thoughtful social commentary. Playing for both screams and tears, we're made to care about characters who don't enjoy the superiority or unrealistic safety afforded to today's teenyboppers in 'popcorn' movies appealing more to the wallet than the heart. Here men and women who deserve better - people with entire histories, dreams, and defects - suffer, die, kill and plead for a mercy that rarely comes from uncaring, unsympathetic nature. Revealing at once both what is best and worst in our species by showing it pitted against its own dark savagery even while battling the external monsters of the natural world, our cats of heroes fall to stony deaths, are tore open, devoured, pinned, and brutalized. They are also heroic, tender, and willing to sacrifice themselves if needed. This is just as much a story of the few positive traits of humanity as the sordid, both of which are exposed by Girdler's deceptively simple direction and storytelling ability as inferior to the raw primal force of a nature we've separated ourselves from but can never completely escape.
Media Blaster's visual transfer is quite nice, with the usual grain and few surface scratches doing little to distract from the quality of the transfer. Framing are adequate, and colors lush and strong. Extras are superb if limited in this special edition of perhaps the greatest animal fear-fest ever committed to film. Besides the rough but enjoyable trailer, we have live interviews with a handful of the crew and cast, covering everything from budget to the animals used in the picture. Along the way we also hear about the importance of sound in making the animals appear viscous, how one pretends to wrestle an animal about as savage as a stuffed animal, and the difficulty of riding down a river in a raft and hitting a stump. Personable, lively, and fun, these interviews are more entertaining than many full-length commentaries I've heard lately. A fine presentation of a sadly neglected classic, Media Blasters' presentation of both Grizzly and Day of the Animals is respective and celebratory, filling a gap in the history of the exploitation film with remastered preservations of one of what could surly have been one of our most creative directors.
Review by William P Simmons
|Released by Media Blasters|
|Region 1 NTSC|
|Extras : see main review|