After the phenomenal success of “Jaws” in 1975, there was a cash-in surge for further “nature strikes back” creature features, as mankind was successively imperiled by dogs, cats, whales, buffalo, piranha and so on. One of the most blatant of these knockoffs was William Girdler’s 1976 “Grizzly,” an undistinguished tale of hairy menace running amok in a national park. It was, nonetheless, a hit — in fact the biggest indie success story of its year, purportedly grossing about fifty times its modest $750,000 budget. As quickly as it had been rushed out to ride “Jaws’” coattails, however, a sequel was slow in coming.
Well, there’s ordinary “slow,” and then there’s the Rip Van Winkle-grade variety. After decades spent as a famously abandoned project, “Grizzly II” finally hits theaters and VOD in 2021. For reasons that remain murky, the Hungary-shot horror thriller originally titled “Grizzly II: The Concert” went unfinished after principal photography ended in 1983, its crucial critter effects (among various other elements) left undone for lack of funds.
While the film officially languished in legal limbo, a work print nonetheless somehow leaked into circulation a few years ago, getting considerable unauthorized play in genre-fan circles. This stoked the ire of original producer Suzanne C. Nagy, who’d been left holding the bag 37 years ago. Now titled “Grizzly II: Revenge,” the end product she’s finagled at last has added curiosity value thanks to early appearances by George Clooney, Laura Dern and Charlie Sheen — who now get top billing, despite fleeting screentime.
They don’t appear for a whole two minutes, during which span “Grizz 2” scores its first unintentional laughs as a mother bear and cubs are shot by poachers. That wouldn’t be funny if not for terrible blood-splat effects, which give full warning that this movie will be seriously short on polish. After the title graphic, the three stars-to-be appear as hikers camping en route to an outdoor rock show. Suffice it to say their roles are of very, very short duration — albeit long enough for two of them to strip down to skivvies.
Thus at the six-minute mark, there’s already a body count, and we begin meeting the real leading characters here. Chasing more “Exorcist II”-style cause for regret, Oscar winner Louise Fletcher plays unsubtly named Ms. Draygon, the politically ambitious superintendent of a 3,000-square-mile public park. À la greedy mayor in “Jaws,” she’s inappropriately leased it for commercial purposes, attracting 100,000 youths to a music festival. Not happy about this is head ranger Nick (Steve Inwood) and “Director of Bear Management” Samantha (Deborah Raffin), particularly once they realize the aforementioned wounded sow is avenging her slain offspring on any human within claw-reach.
Other significant figures at risk of becoming bear food are Nick’s chirpy daughter (“Valley Girl” Deborah Foreman), his second-in-command (Edward Meeks), an imported French-Canadian trapper (John Rhys-Davies, hamming up lines like “Very bad! You got a devil bear!”), the concert stage manager (Dick Anthony Williams) and those mean poachers, whose ranks include Jack Starrett. (There’s also an unbilled appearance by young Timothy Spall as a roadie in an arm cast.)
At times, the film’s brief glimpses of music acts seem vaguely parodic (they include Nigel Doman as a fictive synthpop singer, plus actual proto-Spice Girls Brit quintet Toto Coelo), when not incongruously middle-aged and Hungarian for a movie meant to take place in the U.S. But it’s hard to tell just when “Revenge” actually means to be funny. It does gain a sporadic sense of scale by filming the crowd (but not the show) at an apparent real-life gig by ’70s hard rockers Nazareth. Still, when the clumsy climax arrives — finally providing more than a split-second gander at the obvious mechanized-dummy bear — it disappointingly takes place behind the stage, away from that borrowed cast of thousands.
The late Szots, whose subsequent career would be primarily as a producer, can’t be blamed entirely for the shortfalls of this apparent sole big-screen directorial feature. It clearly wouldn’t have amounted to much more than formulaic genre fodder in the best circumstances, given hackneyed dialogue hampering otherwise passable principal performances.
But in any case, “Revenge” makes glaringly clear that the connective glue which holds together most movies’ basic elements never got applied. There are sequences cutting between horribly ill-matched shots (or even stills). Those “15-foot monster” attacks could not be more cheesily abrupt, poorly disguising faulty effects work. The erratic scoring sounds as if it were cobbled together from numerous different sources and composers. By far the best aspect here are attractive landscape and wildlife shots used to pad out a desperately slim runtime that wouldn’t nudge much past an hour without credits, yet manages to plod anyway.
As it lurches between the woodsy bear hunt and the concert grounds, both threads obviously patched together with plenty of holes remaining, “Grizzly II” never finds a rhythm — not even a giddily camp one. Clooney has long joked that another of his early acting credits, “Return of the Killer Tomatoes,” is the worst film ever made. But not only is that movie not-so-bad, it’s at the very least exactly the goof it set out to be.
The best one can say about “Revenge” is that now viewers’ built-up curiosity can be semi-satisfied via a clean print. But this is always going to be a de facto unfinished movie, with all telltale signs of missing pickup shots and post-production fixes. It’s not even “so bad it’s good” — it’s just a half-assembled collection of parts that will never be whole.