Grizzly Rage (2007): Grin and Bear It

Matty dissects a flawed but interesting gun-for-hire job from the mighty David DeCoteau.

For an ultra-short spell following the release of Werner Herzog’s critically acclaimed documentary Grizzly Man (2005), bears nearly became a SyFy creature feature trend. First there was Savage Planet (2006): an irredeemably awful barrel of arse that completely squandered its wonderfully waffy ‘prehistoric alien bears’ premise. Then Re-Animator (1985) producer Brian Yuzna courted the channel with a pitch for something called ‘Sprawl’, in which a sleuth of grizzlies would terrorise an expanding suburban community encroaching upon their habitat. Sadly, despite Yuzna and editor J.R. Bookwalter putting together an interesting proof of concept/presale trailer made up of footage cribbed from Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) and, of course, William Girdler’s classic bear-sploiter Grizzly (1976), SyFy passed on the project. In a connective twist of fate, it would be Yuzna’s fellow Empire International alum, frequent Bookwalter collaborator, and self-avowed Grizzly fan David DeCoteau who’d help provide the channel with their definitive killer bear opus during their flirtation with the form — but given how slight GRIZZLY RAGE (2007) is as a whole, such an epithet should be read with air quotes.

Nestled among a monumental run of auteur pictures (Voodoo Academy (1999); Ancient Evil: Scream is the Mummy (2000); The Brotherhood (2001) and its five sequels; Beastly Boyz (2006); the incomparable 1313 series etc.) and auteur-minded for-hire gigs that adhere to his pioneering Rapid Heart formula of boys, briefs, and light chills (Wolves of Wall Street (2002), Ring of Darkness (2004), and Killer Bash (2005)), Grizzly Rage finds DeCoteau back in full-blown mercenary mode for the first time since Charles Band coerced him into helming Totem (1999) [1]. That’s not a poke at Grizzly Rage’s quality, mind. Compared to the rubbish Totem, this tepid survival romp — one of an initial batch of six titles to be co-produced by SyFy and RHI Entertainment [2] under their Maneater banner [3] — is a vastly superior offering. However, considering DeCoteau had spent the preceding decade exploring increasingly more personal ideas and actively chasing more envelope-pushing material in terms of LGBTQ+ themed content (see: Skeletons (1997), Leather Jacket Love Story (1997), Absolution: The Journey (1997), and The Killer Eye (1999) as well as those already noted above), the near total nixing of his usual homoerotic hallmarks and queer-soaked obsessions in favour of a film so comparatively ordinary is a mite dispiriting — though Grizzly Rage’s nicely staged denouement does involve the requisite shirtless stud-muffin. And given the helmer’s love of postcard-style humour (again, see: Dr. Alien (1988); his earlier, better creature feature  Leeches! (2003); and the aforementioned Killer Eye), the fact he forgoes a cheeky play on the dual meaning of the word ‘bear’ is unfortunate, too. DeCoteau missed a sitter, right there. 

Still, Grizzly Rage is gorgeous to look at. Bolstered by scenic location shooting (it was lensed in Bird’s Hill Park in Manitoba, Canada), the film is packed with a wealth of striking compositions and images: a high angle gate shot, the reveal of a toxic waste dump, tow rope cam, jerky handheld camerawork, format shifts between different types of digital photography — or, at least, editorial noodling to imply as much… Sure, it’s a little gimmicky on occasion, but, when they’re coupled with the punchy punk and quintessentially mid-‘00s-sounding alt-rock cuts on the soundtrack, DeCoteau and cinematographer Barry Gravelle’s dynamic visuals imbue Grizzly Rage with an anarchic vim that masks the relative lack of on-screen action. Yes, there’s a nifty jeep roll down a quarry twenty-two minutes in; a pulse-quickening bear attack on the jeep at the end of the second act; and an emotionally charged moment during a storm (brought to life via DeCoteau’s patented use of a lightning machine) when, the number of their group now thinned, the last two characters left standing utilise a dead pal as bait. But, by and large, that’s about it: Grizzly Rage is a trudge — a wheel-spinner reliant on a lot of walking through brush and foliage.   

That said, the brooding, Monte Hellman-esque sense of eerie sparseness that DeCoteau fosters is beautifully seductive. Grizzly Rage’s plot is appealingly minimal (four college kids in the woods incur the wrath of a pissed-off mama bear after they accidentally kill its cub) and the weird elliptic flourishes DeCoteau extracts from what’s really an undercooked screenplay — the best being a Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)-like trapper’s shack that, in a refreshing anti-development, is just there, sans the expected hillbilly denizens and boring exposition — fare a damn sight better than scripter Arne Olsen’s naff stabs at tart, banter-y dialogue [4]. Alas, what is impossible to ignore is the absence of genuine peril, as exemplified by Grizzly Rage’s — quote, unquote — ‘monster’. DeCoteau’s decision to harness an actual 1,600lb bear (a trained male grizzly named Koda) and a multitude of practical FX gags in lieu of the standard SyFy CGI beastie is audacious and conceptually brilliant. But, bafflingly, for the bulk of the film, he employs the bluntest cutting this side of a broken butter knife and never convincingly sells the illusion that any mayhem is taking place in the same area as those that the bear is supposed to be stalking, let alone within the same frame as them. It’s another open goal sent careening into orbit. 

Grizzly Rage premiered on the Canadian VOD service Movie Central on 7th June 2007 and debuted on SyFy just over three months later, on 16th September. 

[1] It came as part of DeCoteau’s deal to get his baby, Voodoo Academy, off the ground. Direct Totem for Band, and Band would back Voodoo Academy.
[2] Or, as they’d be known after a name change in March 2012, Sonar Entertainment.
[3] The rest of the Maneater series is as follows: In the Spider’s Web (2007), Maneater (2007), Something Beneath (2007), Croc (2007), Eye of the Beast (2007), Blood Monkey (2007), The Hive (2008), Black Swarm (2008), Hybrid (2008), Shark Swarm (2008), Vipers (2008), Swamp Devil (2008), Yeti (2008), Wyvern (2009), Sea Beast (2009), Carny (2009), Rise of the Gargoyles (2009), Malibu Shark Attack (2009), Sand Serpents (2009), Hellhounds (2009), High Plains Invaders (2009), Behemoth (2011), Ferocious Planet (2011), Roadkill (2011), Scarecrow (2013), Shark Killer (2015), and The Hollow (2015).
[4] Olsen also penned SyFy/RHI’s Hybrid.

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