Studio: Severin Films
Release date: May 18th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It’s like I said about Grizzly this time last year: it’s not a Jaws rip-off—it’s the Jaws rip-off. Many, many films looked to (and still look to) cash in on Steven Spielberg’s landmark blockbuster, but this one immediately set a high bar. Weirdly enough, this was due largely in part to the utterly shameless approach: everyone involved knew what they were doing, including producer David Sheldon, who helped to hatch the project before Jaws even made it to the screen itself. Touting it as “Jaws with fur,” Sheldon knew exactly the kind of movie he was making, and there’s something to be said for this kind of self-aware exploitation filmmaking. When Sheldon’s crew—which came to be led by emerging director William Girdler—went down to Georgia, they did so with every intention of raising grindhouse hell. It’s an approach that ran contrary to Spielberg’s own when he shaped Peter Benchley’s paperback melodrama into something a little more refined by dropping some of its more unseemly elements, like adulterous love affairs and a mafia subplot. It wasn’t exactly pretentious, but something tells me if Jaws were in production today, it might get slapped with the dreaded “elevated horror” label, simply because it spends a lot of time investing in the characters and the world surrounding them, with the creature mayhem unfolding with tact and suspense.
Nobody would ever dare consider Grizzly to be “elevated,” though, and that’s the point. It’s a movie that’s more concerned about scattering limbs and firing bazookas than it is anything else. There’s nothing wrong with that, and this is a movie that knows nothing is wrong with that. Equally important, however, is that it doesn’t rub your face in it. I don’t want to get off on this particular rant for the umpteenth time, but it bears repeating in this case: an unrepentant schlock-fest like Grizzly thrives on the unspoken agreement between filmmaker and audience, both of whom know what they want and what they’re going to get. When the former breaks the silence, it shatters the illusion of that agreement with a detached irony that begs the audience to let them off the hook for making a bad movie. You all know how much I rankle at this relatively recent phenomenon, and I’m always pining for the halcyon days where stuff like Grizzly was the norm. While the exploitative marketing certainly drew attention to the obvious blockbuster inspiration, the film itself doesn’t so much as blink as it spins its wild yarn about a killer bear terrorizing an entire national park. (Emphasis on “entire” because Grizzly is one of the most unhinged PG movies ever made in the way it doesn't spare anyone, including children and livestock.)
Other nature-run-amok films have contended for Grizzly’s throne over the years (with Girdler himself re-entering the arena just a year later with Day of the Animals), but none of them have really quite captured its singular madness. The sheer unrepentance, the unabashed mayhem, and the sturdy craftsmanship are largely unmatched (though I will definitely hear a case for Alligator). Considering the quick-and-dirty nature of the production, it’s also shaggy enough to still feel disreputable: not only is it a clear knock-off, but it’s not exactly a Hollywood-sanctioned one to boot. It has a real “let’s fuck around and rip off Jaws” energy, almost as if the ragtag crew was just trying to see just how far they could take it. Once you’ve seen Grizzly, you feel like they really got away with something that maybe they shouldn’t have—not that they’d ever draw attention to it in that self-satisfied, eager-to-please manner we see from some modern exploitation. Real ones don’t have to show off; they just grab a bazooka and go to work.
Grizzly has had a long home video history, including multiple DVD and Blu-ray releases. However, there’s always been nagging issues with either the picture quality or remixed soundtracks that’s left a little bit to be desired. Severin has stepped up to make the latest—and greatest—attempt with a brand new Blu-ray that checks off two important boxes right up front with a sterling new 2K transfer and the restored original mono track. Both are well done—I don’t quite remember Grizzly ever looking so vivid, and the soundtrack has a nice, robust quality to it considering the age of the source material. Short of a 4K UHD release, I can’t imagine it getting much better than this.
Severin has also produced some new special features, including a new commentary track with Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth. Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower appears for a succinct, 45-minute rundown of Girdler’s career that mostly consists of him narrating over still images of the films. His ability to eloquently describe Girdler’s output is impressive, and the information thoroughly traces the director’s career arc, starting with filmmaking becoming a childhood obsession. Girdler could have easily followed in businessman father’s footsteps, but he always knew he wanted to be a filmmaker, and he went on to craft one of the most indelible oeuvres in the grindhouse annals. Thrower delivers solid overviews of each film and even addresses some films Girdler abandoned, like a Deliverance rip-off and a Three on a Meathook sequel.
Frequent collaborator and business partner J. Patrick Kelly III gives an audio interview that serves as a good compliment to Thrower’s more academic approach. Kelly is more informal and personal as he recounts the circumstances surrounding each production he was involved with, and he quite candidly speculates on what might have become of Girdler had he not tragically died in a helicopter accident, noting that his Hollywood prospects would have been fine if he had continued to refine his craft (for what it’s worth, Thrower makes a similar assessment). There’s some crossover info between the two interviews, like the infamous saga involving producer Edward Montoro, who tried to bilk Girdler and his crew out of their profits on Grizzly. Both interviews also reiterate what a massive loss it was that Girdler left us at just 30 years old, just as he was hitting his stride. I’d like to think that he would have continued making incredible schlock because that’s the picture that comes into focus with these interviews: Girdler was a guy who was making the exact kind of movies he wanted to make, with no regard for public taste or standards of decency.
Actor Tom Arcugari appears for a solo interview, where he mostly reminisces on his Grizzly experience, painting the portrait of a ragtag production where he would handle boom mic duties between his own acting takes. Sheldon and actress Joan McCall appear in another interview, which goes in-depth on the roots of Grizzly and the happenstance nature of its production. The idea came to Sheldon after hearing about fellow producer Harvey Flaxman’s harrowing encounter with a bear, and Girdler fortuitously came across the eventual script when it was lying around Sheldon’s office during an unrelated meeting. It seems like Grizzly was just meant to be.
Severin has also ported over a pair of archival supplements from previous releases, including the “Jaws with Claws” mini-retrospective from 2006. There’s also an assortment of trailers and radio spots to complete a nice but not entirely comprehensive package. Completists will want to hang on to both previous Blu-ray releases, which sport some exclusive extras. However, anyone looking to have their first encounter with Grizzly will certainly want to start here thanks to the impeccable presentation. What’s more, the retrospectives about Girdler’s career doubles as a list of recommendations for further madness. Here’s hoping it’s also a prelude to his earlier work (Asylum of Satan, Three on a Meathook, Abby) being rediscovered and/or officially released.
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