The Eco-Horror Films Of William Girdler

The indie director’s two Nature Gone Wild movies are more interesting than people would have you believe.

The mid-1970s saw a boom in what we might loosely call eco-horror – films and books about nature, large and small, fighting back against humanity. From crabs to rats from dogs to spiders and assorted unlikely bugs, it seemed that every animal was out to get us. Much of this – at least in movies – stemmed from the success of Jaws, but Jaws itself didn’t appear in a vacuum. There was clearly something in the air, as people became increasingly aware of ecological issues and a whole end-of-the-world vibe hung over the decade. Bad shit was happening in the 1970s and for many, it seemed as though the reign of humanity was about to be over.

Film director William Girdler was an ambitious young man in the 1970s. While not exactly in the Spielberg wunderkind bracket, he had directed his first feature film in 1972 at the age of 25 – which back then was very young for a film director – and had carved out a solid, if not especially remarkable career making low budget exploitation movies, each slightly bigger and more ambitious than the last. He was steadily making the move from regional horror movies to action films starring B-list names to more ambitious projects, and while the likelihood of him ever moving into the big leagues was unlikely, you could easily imagine him carving out a solid career as a dependable low budget movie maker or a television director handling episodes of hit shows. Sadly, Girdler would be killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines while scouting locations in 1978. He was 30 years old.

Girdler and the eco-horror film had collided a couple of years earlier in the film that would be his biggest hit. 1976 movie Grizzly made $39 million dollars at the box office, making it the most successful independent film ever made at that point; John Carpenter’s Halloween would take the crown a couple of years later. Unlike Carpenter, Girdler would not find critical approval for his movie and was not hailed as a great genre visionary – quite the opposite, as critics heaped scorn on what they (rightly) saw as a shameless Jaws copy. But audiences loved Grizzly and didn’t care if all the characters and much of the plot were variations on the ones seen in the Spielberg movie – I know because I was part of that audience and spent the walk home after the show (double-billed with the immediately obscure comedy Drive-In!) excitedly reliving the highlights with school chums.

That nine-year-old children were allowed to see Grizzly in the cinema back in 1976 is testament to just how different the 1970s were, and perhaps the precedent set by Jaws. While the British censors were not exactly strangers to double standards or contradictory decisions, the fact that the gory shark film had been passed with an ‘A’ certificate without causing widespread trauma probably opened things up more to similar monster movies also being given the family-friendly rating. But Grizzly was, well, more grisly than Jaws – the bear attacks were genuinely nasty and gory, and at one point (possible spoiler alert) we see the bear rip a little kid’s arm off before eating his mother. The death of Alex Kitner in Jaws was mild stuff by comparison.

Grizzly follows the Jaws template: a larger-than-usual predator has developed a taste for human flesh, and only the chief ranger a grizzled old-timer and a young hotshot can stop it. getting in the way is an official with political ambitions who refuses to close the National Park to tourists until it is too late. It all ends very explosively.

But who cares if all this is desperately familiar? Not the audiences who flocked to it. I’m not sure they even noticed that much – at the time, it just felt as though this was the standard narrative of these things (and Grizzly was far from being the only Jaws copycat out there). In truth, once the template is set up, Grizzly doesn’t really feel like Jaws at all – the look is entirely different, with the vast park a more visually majestic one than the endless ocean and the rural setting giving the film a feel closer to the backwoods horror films that were also a big thing in the 1970s. And the characters, once we’ve passed the template, are rather different – Richard Jaekel’s Quint clone, Arthur Scott, is less the hunter and more the environmentalist who wants to take the bear alive; Christopher George’s ranger chief is an angrier version of Chief Brody, and Andrew Pine’s helicopter pilot is more cynical than Matt Hooper. They are all different versions of the same basic characters found in Jaws, but they don’t feel like mere imitations – Jaekel’s character in particular is more nuanced than you would expect.

It is, however, Grizzly himself who makes this film its own thing. Allegedly a fifteen-foot-tall monster, the bear – in fact, a Kodiak bear called (I kid you not) Teddy who stood a not-unimpressive eleven feet – looks genuinely imposing. If you’ve seen bears on film, you’ll know how hard it is to make them look threatening – they might be hugely dangerous predators, but they still tend to look quite cuddly. It’s to Girdler’s credit (and the credit of the bear’s trainers, perhaps – though perhaps we don’t want to dwell on what that training might have involved) that Teddy here looks seriously brutal. Often shot from below and standing up rather than ambling along, dubbed-in roars and fast cuts allow the bear to seem genuinely monstrous. Add to this some sparingly used prop arms and bodies for the actual attacks and you have a monster that is actually much more visually present and realistic than the infamously troublesome mechanical shark in Jaws.

The attacks are impressively nasty – faces torn apart, limbs ripped off, bodies bloodily crushed – and shot with a frantic style that adds to the intensity. The film piles on more violent death than in its more famous predecessor and keeps the action moving, rarely stopping for breath. As we mentioned earlier, it takes no prisoners in terms of who the bear attacks. The ripping off of the little kid’s arm is a moment of shocking audacity, and then there is the decapitated horse – no taboo is too much for Girdler to gleefully violate, it seems.

It must be said that while the action scenes are impressively handled and the pacing solid, the film does generally have the flat look of a TV movie – Girdler does not have the stylistic chops of a Spielberg and Grizzly never quite manages to overcome its low budget knock-off status. None of that really matters to the audience, but it’s clear why the unexpected box office success of the film didn’t immediately catapult Girdler into the big leagues – this is a film that succeeded by doing exactly what it was supposed to, but there is no real directorial stamp on the project. It was, ultimately, another step up the ladder for its young director, but his career was going to carry on steadily climbing rather than leaping forward, and his next film would be a continuation of the themes explored in Grizzly, with some of the same stars but a much more original plot.

Day of the Animals is, on paper, a similar film to Grizzly, so much so that it has often been seen as an unofficial sequel to the earlier film. The location is similar, the American backwoods where hapless tourists find themselves in conflict with nature, and both Christopher George and Richard Jaekel are back on board. But there’s a rather more interesting and original narrative at work in this film, as the ‘animal attack’ story of Grizzly that the title suggests gives way to a study of how quickly civilisation breaks down.

The film is a pioneering look at the effects of ozone layer depletion – decades before Birdemic! – with the intriguing idea that UV radiation at high altitudes is causing animals to become more aggressive. And not just animals. As a party of hikers head to the hills on what already seems a spectacularly ill-advised weekend of survivalist led by the somewhat gung-ho Steve Buckner (Christopher George this time playing the man who ignores warnings as opposed to his character in Grizzly). Among this unprepared bunch is advertising executive Paul Jenson, played with sneering self-importance by Leslie Nielsen. Now, I love Airplane! and The Naked Gun as much as the next man, but I can’t help but feel that Nielsen’s emergence as a natural comedy performer in the 1980s robbed us of Nielsen the consummate villain. No one quite plays arrogant and coldly psychotic in the way he does, and it is no exaggeration to say that he dominates this film. Even at the start, his character is the sort of aggressive, provocative bigot that makes your skin crawl, and his every moment on screen feels uncomfortable. You don’t need to know anything about the movie to know that things are not going to end well with him.

While Day of the Animals lives up to the promise of the title with a variety of hopped-up wildlife causing mayhem – including rattlesnakes, wolves, rats and assorted birds that attack and pick off supporting cast members – the real meat of the movie is in the effect of the ozone on the human characters. Day of the Animals feels like a misleading title, one that sells the film on what the producers perhaps thought was the main narrative but isn’t. This is more a study in the collapse of society, featured in microcosm here with the band of hikers who are just as affected by the madness that is gripping the animals. It starts with Nielsen’s character making a power play when other characters are injured and the group become split over the best course of action – heading back down the mountain or staying put to await the helicopters. Jenson believes the latter and persuades a handful of people to go along with him despite the fact that no one in their right mind is going to believe an advertising executive over an experienced guide. But soon, Nielsen has lost all vestiges of civilisation, terrorising his companions as he rules over them like a feudal lord. Rape, murder and bear-fighting soon follow.

If there’s a main fault in this film, it’s that by setting Nielsen up as the only villain, it fails to really explore the idea of a spreading madness as well as it might. But Nielsen carries the weight of expectation well, his evolution from arrogant shit to deranged, shirtless maniac having just enough nuance and development not to seem overly forced. The fact that he is already, clearly, a psychopath in the classic sense – you imagine his character would score full marks in The Psychopath Test – is perhaps why he becomes so dangerous. The seeming effect of the ozone is less to automatically make people violent as it is to strip away any restraint, heightening their latent personalities. All this is rather more interesting than the actual animal attacks, all of which feel rather random and oddly ineffectual, especially when we compare them to the spectacle of Grizzly. The bear attack is a highlight, but only because it provides the unforgettable sight of Leslie Nielsen wrestling a grizzly. I won’t spoil things by saying who wins, but you can probably take a guess.

Whatever Day of the Animals is – and I’m not too sure that anyone involved was quite sure about that – we can say for certain what it isn’t, and that is another Jaws clone. Lazy film critics, then and now, will tell you different, because apparently, any film involving nature on the rampage made at the time must be a copycat. But there is no connection whatsoever to Jaws here – well, other than the appearance in the cast of Susan Backlinie, who will forever be famous as the first person to be eaten by the shark in Spielberg’s film. You might think that her casting here was a gimmick, or simply an attempt to somehow cash-in by having “the Jaws girl” in the cast, and perhaps there was some of that; but Backlinie was, more than an actress, both a stunt performer and an animal trainer, and those were her main roles in the film. It probably made sense to also cast her in one of the supporting roles just from an economic sense.

Perhaps showing how he was developing as a filmmaker, Girdler gives this film a bit more visual kick than he did Grizzly. There are some great visual moments that show an eye for composition and impact, making this a fascinating transition between Grizzly and his final (and best) film The Manitou. The film is, however, saddled with some terrible special effects and blue-screen composition that reveal the reduced circumstances of the production and which don’t even add anything to the film. A better, more experienced director might have worked around those scenes rather than including them, but I doubt anyone – Girdler included – had any idea that Day of the Animals was anything other than a pot-boiler.

Seen now, these two films are a fascinating pair. If you want action and excitement, Grizzly is for you; if you prefer a more character-driven story, then you should go with Day of the Animals. Both, however, are rather more interesting than you might have been told. I don’t know if Girdler was a great, untapped talent or simply an efficient jobbing director, but there is no arguing that his films – from the weirdness of his early movies like Three on a Meathook, through blaxploitation movies like Sheba Baby and onto The Manitou – are all very watchable. Film can be high art, but sometimes it just needs to deliver entertainment without pretension, and these two films, in particular, do that very well. Both movies deliver the goods and now feel like part of a movement rather than simple imitations. As the popularity of shark movies has exploded, the eco-horror film has gone into sharp decline – it’s sharks or nothing these days, it seems – but these two films are great examples of what could be done with basic (and second-hand) ideas and a certain determination.

DAVID FLINT

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