Claws/Devil Bear (1977) -**
Okay, it’s easy to understand why so many filmmakers have ripped off Jaws over the years. Jaws is a fantastic movie, easily the best of all the 1970’s “When Animals Attack” films. It’s suspenseful, it’s exciting, and when it came out in 1975, it sank its teeth into the culture in a big way, and didn’t let go for more than a decade. The existence of movies like Devil Fish, Great White, Crocodile, Up from the Depths, and The Great Alligator is thus perfectly easy to understand. Also understandable— and commendable as well, especially in the context of the times— is the existence of the small number of movies whose creators attempted to add something to the template, as opposed to just slavishly copying it. Piranha and Alligator, for example, added satire; William Girdler’s Grizzly took the unusual step of taking the formula out of its natural environment, and trying to see if it would still work. And that, my friends, brings me to Claws/Devil Bear. Claws is first and foremost a Grizzly knockoff, an enterprise roughly equivalent to making a slasher movie that takes My Bloody Valentine as its principal source of pilfered ideas. Why on Earth would anybody do such a thing?
I hope you like flashbacks, too, because this movie has nearly as many as Night of the Demon. The opening scene, while not technically a flashback, sets the tone for the film by taking place five years before the real story. A trio of hunters, led by a man who spends so much time talking about being a “licensed guide” as to set off the “Methinks the asshole doth protest too much” reflex, stumbles upon a pair of large grizzly bears wrestling in the Alaskan woods for no readily apparent reason. After watching the ursine brawl for a few minutes, the hunters unshoulder their rifles and start shooting. One bear dies, but the other (it’s supposed to be an unusually enormous one, but it looks to be about the same size as its erstwhile sparring partner to me) runs off into the woods, merely wounded. The hunters pursue, but they have no luck in catching the “monster” bear. On the other hand, a logger named Jason Monroe (Jason Evers, from The Brain that Wouldn’t Die and Barracuda) has a very unpleasant run-in with the beast while walking down the road in search of someone to help him fix his crippled pickup truck. The bear doesn’t kill Jason, but by the time it’s done with him, his left arm isn’t good for much. This proves to be only the first of a series of attacks by what the local newspapers swiftly dub the “Satan Bear” (now we know where Johnny Layton and “One Shot” McGuire went after the events of The Devil Bat...), which then vanishes mysteriously, never to be heard from again.
Five years after he was mauled by the Satan Bear, it sure does suck to be Jason Monroe. Not only is he struggling desperately to pay the bills (it’s not exactly easy to be a logger with a gimp arm, you know), his wife, Chris (Carla Layton), has run off with their son, Buck, and taken up with Howard Lockhart (Glenn Sipes, from Destination Inner Space), the director of Buck’s Boy Scout troop. Jason has become a bitter, angry, cynical man, who shuns the company of everybody but his Indian friend, Henry Chico (Phantom of the Rue Morgue’s Anthony Caruso— and if Caruso is an Indian, then I’m Vietnamese). Things are only going to get worse in the days ahead, though, because the Satan Bear is about to come back out of hiding.
The bear makes its first appearance when it attacks Howard and his Boy Scouts during an overnight campout. Several boys are injured, but none as seriously as Buck, who falls into a coma, and could easily die of his injuries. This turn of events puts something of a strain on Chris Monroe’s relationship with Lockhart. After all, he was supposed to be keeping her son safe, and as a series of flashbacks reveals, it had been he who convinced Chris to let Buck go on the campout in the first place. The news also has a profound effect on Jason, who is the first to conclude that the bear that attacked Buck was the same one that savaged him five years ago. Jason had already been seething for revenge against the lethal animal, but this really is the last straw.
Chris, for her part, doesn’t much like the idea of her ex-husband going all Captain Ahab on her. She goes to see her uncle, game commissioner Ben Jones (Leon Ames, from the 1932 version of Murders in the Rue Morgue), with whom Jason had always been very close in the old days. Ben agrees to try his hand at talking Jason out of pursuing his vendetta against the Satan Bear, but he meets with no success. The best he can do is to persuade Jason to let Ben join him on the hunt.
Meanwhile, a pair of grad students have flown in from some university or other with what they bill as a fool-proof scheme to catch the bear. Their techniques have been tested against man-eaters on three continents, and have thus far proven a resounding success. The trap involves an electronically controlled cage, TV and infrared sensors, and radio transmitters, and certainly sounds impressive when they describe it. Ben assigns the grad students to work with the “licensed guide” from the first scene, whom he rightly suspects had a hand in turning the Satan Bear bad in the first place, and then gives them a completely free hand to do their thing. Satan Bear is smarter than he looks, however, and far from falling into the trap, he traps the guide and the grad students instead, tracking them to the cabin where they have set up their equipment, and killing the lot of them.
With the technological solution a miserable failure, Ben sees no recourse but to deal with the bear Jason’s way. He, Henry, and Howard (who feels responsible for what the bear did to Buck) join up with Jason, and follow him up into the wooded mountains where the logger believes the animal makes its home. Along the way, matters are complicated not only by the bear’s activities, but also by the visions Henry keeps receiving from his spirit guides (Goddamnit! Can’t we have just one movie Indian who isn’t a mystic?! Just one?!), and by the last-minute appearance of Chris up on the bear’s mountain. Eventually, the hunting party is whittled down to just Jason himself, who will naturally have to save his wife from being eaten long enough for the unnamed helicopter pilot we’ve been seeing roaming around in the background all movie long to show up and pull everyone’s asses out of the fire.
Claws is pretty much par for the course as a rip-off of a rip-off. Bad script, bad, acting, bad direction— all the usual defects. On the other hand, it has a couple of features providing it with a bit of witless charm. Every bear attack happens in slow motion, and concludes with a freeze-frame, for example. Every single one. Anthony Caruso gets some unintentionally hilarious lines (when he breaks the news about Buck to Jason, Henry adds, “I think I go drink whiskey now. You want to go drink whiskey too?”), and the visions sent by Henry’s spirit guides are a scream— lots of stuffed animals are involved. And as a person who grew up thinking the Cub and Boy Scouts he went to school with were a bunch of pricks, I found the experience of seeing a pack of scouts mauled by a bear to be strangely satisfying. But the main thing Claws left me with was an intense desire to see Grizzly. Somehow, I don’t think that’s quite the reaction this movie’s creators were aiming for.