April 22, 2016


This is an early chapter from the book, CINEMA 69: FROM VICTORY TO WONDERLAND, which discusses the 1976 film, Grizzly. Essentially a ripoff of Jaws, this chapter lays down the overall mindset of undemanding young moviegoers at the time, drawing comparision to kids today, who generally equate the best movie of all time to the last movie they watched.

GRIZZLY and the Stupidity of Children

Starring Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Joan McCall, Teddy the Bear. Directed by William Girdler. (1976, 91 min).

Kids are dumb. I know this because I teach middle school.

I begin each day of my 7th grade English class with a warm-up writing exercise, where students respond to a prompt on the screen. It's mostly silly stuff, like 'write about a time you were scared,' or 'what would you do with a million dollars?'. But occasionally, I throw them something a little more challenging, one of my favorites being 'name the greatest American who ever lived.' I get an amusing variety of responses with that one. Sure, there are a few who actually think hard about the question and provide such reasonable responses as Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy and King. As of this writing, a lot of kids select Barack Obama, probably because he's the one modern president they're familiar with.

Then there are the wacky answers, such as Michael Jackson, Justin Beiber, Lebron James, etc. My all-time favorite was, 'I don't know who the greatest American was, but I know the dumbest...my brother.'

Several years ago, one girl responded with Mike Tyson.

After reading her response, I said to her, "So let me get this straight...you believe Mike Tyson, a disgraced athlete who once bit off an opponent's ear and went to prison for rape is the greatest American who ever lived."

She sheepishly shrugged and replied, "Yeah...we named our dog after him."

For some students, I guess my warm-up questions are above and beyond challenging.

Further evidence that kids are dumb is when I ask them to write about the best movie they've ever seen. Seems simple enough, right?

I don't expect them all to have experienced The Godfather, although there's the occasional kid who mentions Grease, The Wizard of Oz or the original Star Wars. But for the most part, less than 1% ever write about a movie that came out before they were born. That's to be expected; even though I'm getting on in years, there are very few movies made before I popped from my mom that I would list among my all time favorites.

One year, several boys responded with Alien vs. Predator, which briefly oozed into theaters the previous summer. I offered my two cents, saying it didn't hold a candle to the original Alien.
One kid's stunned reply was, “There was another Alien movie?”

Okay, I understand that, since I'm used to the common middle school philosophy that nothing ever existed before they were born. But I won't ever forgive this other punk who had seen the original and proudly stated Alien vs. Predator was far better because it was newer, therefore more realistic. This was one of those times that I wished they still allowed paddling in schools.

Year in and year out, most kids tend to equate the best movie they've seen with the last movie they've seen. This used to bug me until I took a good look back at my own past. Like everyone on Earth except my high school History teacher, I was a kid once...and just as dumb. Maybe even dumber because, after seeing 1976's Grizzly, I initially declared it to be bigger, better and scarier than Jaws.

Jaws is obviously considered one of the greatest movies ever made (the greatest, in my humble opinion). It's on several AFI best-of lists in various categories. It was nominated for four Oscars, winning three (losing Best Picture). It also was the first film to earn over $100 million at the box office and, adjusting for inflation, is still the seventh biggest movie of all time.

Grizzly, on the other hand, is a low-budget Jaws knock-off. In fact, it is Jaws, only with a bear instead of a shark, a national park instead of an island, a park ranger instead of a sheriff, a chopper pilot instead of a boat captain. Even several scenes are nearly identical...shots from the beasts' POV, climaxes where said-beasts explode, dumbass authority figures proven wrong by our hero, Susan Blacklinie as a victim (though she's uncredited in Grizzly).

The movie's poster art also was similar. '18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!' touted the tag-line in ads back in 1976, roughly a year after Jaws first scared the living shit out of everybody with a pulse. That was enough for me to check it out when it hit the 69.

I thought Grizzly was awesome. Sure, it was just Jaws-in-the-woods, but Grizzly was brand new and Bruce the shark was a distant memory. In 1976, when they didn't show-up on-demand or on disc a few months after their theatrical runs, movies became distant memories really fast, especially when you were 13 and stupid. So for a long time, Grizzly was the better of the two movies, though not necessarily scarier. In fact, the co-feature playing with Grizzly at the time, a William Castle cheapie titled Bug, disturbed me a lot more (especially a scene where a fire-spewing cockroach barbecues a cat...man, I was days getting over that).

Grizzly was simply better because it was new. When you're young & stupid, you don't notice the dumb dialogue, how cheap the movie looks or that Christopher George is no Roy Scheider. You sure-as-hell don't compare director William Girdler's meager talents to those of Spielberg (in fact, you don't even know who the hell Spielberg is).

But my eyes were opened a few years later when Grizzly aired on TV, retitled Killer Grizzly, apparently to avoid confusion with the huggable, fun-loving bears that play with our kids in the back yard. It was the same old film, only this time I could see it for what it was...a cheap knock-off of a classic.

I'm making it sound like the movie is garbage, but as Jaws imitators go (and there were a lot of them back then), Grizzly isn't bad at all. It's pretty fun & fast-paced, reasonably well-acted by its B-list cast and makes the most of its limited financial resources. In fact, I'd say more creativity and care was put into this Jaws rip-off than any of that film's official sequels. As for me, the movie holds a great deal of nostalgic value. I still pluck it from my DVD shelf now and again to enjoy a good laugh...not at the movie (though it's sometimes unintentionally funny), but at my younger self for ever thinking Grizzly could be a better film than Jaws.

I'm sure when that maladjusted Alien vs. Predator-loving student of mine pulls his head out of his ass later in life, he'll do the same thing. Kids are dumb, but most aren't dumb forever.

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