Monday, January 7, 2013

Grizzly (1976) dir. William Girdler

Logline: At the height of tourist season, a National Park suffers a series of viscous bear attacks, in which hikers and campers have had their flesh stripped from the bone in the beast's hungry fury. With the carcasses mounting and the park's superviser refusing to close the area down, it's up to a park ranger (Christopher George), a military veteran (Andrew Prine), and a naturalist (Richard Jaeckel) to take care of the towering forest menace.

Animal of Choice: A 15-foot-tall, 2,000 pound grizzly bear descended from a species that lived during the Pleistocene epoch.

Thinking Ecologically: Grizzly is not a particularly ecologically conscious film. In an opening helicopter ride, Andrew Prine's character expresses a desire to see the beautiful forest landscape below him stay like it is forever and that the government's conservationist efforts in designating it a National Park have certainly helped to maintain and protect it. That's a nice sentiment, for sure, but the film soon reveals how the human management of "protected" land can also alter or destroy certain aspects of it. When the bear attacks begin, Christopher George's park ranger is incredulous considering that he has already personally tagged and moved out all of the bears from the forest in preparation for the influx of tourists. This reveals that the environment and its natural wildlife is being changed and damaged (even if only momentarily) in light of human interest, here the desire to hike and camp without the threat of bears (who, y'know, live there). So, yes, nature should be preserved, but only insofar as it remains perfect and idyllic based upon human conceptions of nature (meaning: no real, natural dangers posed to human enjoyment and leisure). Anything that does not mesh with the pretty, harmless image of nature must be removed. When a prehistoric (but mightily ferocious) species of bear is discovered, the immediate response of the park's authorities is neither to preserve it nor capture it for science. Rather, it's to blow it up into bear goop with a bazooka. 

Thinking About Animals: The titular bear is made out to be an unambiguous villain. He intentionally targets young women (our heroes make wry jokes about him preferring them, making this grizzly the first ever misogynist killer animal), rips a child's limbs off before bear hugging his mother to death right in front of him, and even swallows a cute, defenseless black bear cub up whole. He's merely a beast who eats and rages. One doesn't even receive the sense that he's an animal defending his territory or simply doing what an animal does. A real misanthrope. If one wanted to get cute about things, the grizzly could be seen as the forest symbolically exacting revenge against humanity and its "management" of nature by ripping humanity and all its physical remnants to shreds (in one superb sequence, the bear topples a tall wooden watchtower through sheer force). But this is a glum reading, because humanity wins.

Evaluation in Brief: What should become obvious at a certain point this month (especially when looking at the release years of these films) is that for many films of the late 1970s Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) was, one could say, inspirational. Even then, few of the animal terror films that would follow in its wake would rip its story, characters, and plot points as brazenly as William Girdler's Grizzly. (One moment of thievery I found particularly noteworthy was a duplication of Robert Shaw's harrowing shark attack story, here transposed onto grizzlys and Native Americans). One could find this contemptible. Alternately, one could enjoy a cheaply made film in which a giant, mostly off-screen bear dismembers campers and is blown up with a bazooka for his trouble. It's a fine line. Girdler was also responsible for the later Day of the Animals (1977), which is a much more interesting and thematically complex film, though still cynically mining the sudden boom of Jaws fever.

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