Bears have been a mainstay in cinema for decades, often populating children’s films and frequently utilized as furry plot devices to create some thrills, tension, or laughs in movies of all genres! But I personally feel that bears have been severely underutilized when it comes to Horror cinema – you can count nearly every bear-centric horror/thriller on both of your hands! That’s why I’m so danged excited to see a new, and completely over-the-top killer bear flick in theaters, namely COCAINE BEAR!
Inspired by Elizabeth Banks’ new film, I put together the following list of movies featuring some truly bad-ass bruins. While the majority of them predominantly feature Grizzlies (the “champagne of bears”), I’ve included a few deep cuts to spice things up, including movies featuring ancient curses, monstrous mutants, and various species of ursine antagonists! So before you head out the multiplex this weekend to watch a bear dismember people after ingesting enough coke to make Tony Montana envious, perhaps “paws” for a moment and check out a few of these “bear necessities” first!
WARNING: THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS AHEAD!
Based upon a harrowing true story, BACKCOUNTRY was the feature film debut of Writer/Director Adam MacDonald. The movie follows Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenny (Missy Peregrym), a young couple on a weekend camping trip in the Canadian wilderness. Alex wants to find a place that he recalls visiting in his youth (a nice little romantic spot with a waterfall where he plans on asking for Jenny’s hand in marriage) so he takes his would-be fiancee off the beaten path, ignoring numerous warning signs that a bear is lurking nearby. The film eventually culminates in a vicious attack where our two protagonists have their tent invaded by a very large and ravenous Black Bear (portrayed in the film by two bears named Chester & Charlie), leading to a rather bleak climax that’ll leave you thinking twice about camping in the deep woods!
Available at Amazon: Blu-ray
Made during the Silver Age of the slasher film craze, BERSERKER features six college friends who head to a cabin in Utah to party. During the day they have a blast swimming in a pond, riding around on a three-wheeler, and drinking brewskis but as night falls someone, or something, begins stalking them. Soon the killing and maiming begins, but is the culprit the constantly meandering Bart the Bear, or has the local legend of the “Nordic Curse of the Viking Berserker” become a reality?! While it isn’t exactly good, and far from being iconic, BERSERKER does manage to be a rather unique entry into slasher sub-genre. At the very least, it’s the only film you’ll ever see a man dressed in an S&M bear outfit wrestle with a grizzly!
Available at Amazon: Nope! Out of print. Watch a VHS-rip for free on YouTube!
Shot on location in Alaska, CLAWS was clearly made to cash in on a certain other killer bear movie that we’ll be getting to shortly. When three poachers shoot and injure a grizzly, the wounded animal runs off and begins a reign of terror in the surrounding countryside declaring open season on loggers, campers, hunters, and Boy Scouts! Seeking to end the carnage, a hunter named Jason Monroe (Jason Evers) goes after the rampaging bear, recruiting Alaska Forest Commissioner Ben Jones (Leon Ames), and “Alaskan Native” Henry (Anthony Caruso) to help him. As the film reaches its climax, we are treated to a surprisingly entertaining duel to the death between our gun-toting/axe-wielding protagonist and an apex predator! Though it has a plodding pace and drags in spots, CLAWS is an interesting addition to the eco-horror sub-genre that has unfortunately been out of print for quite some time.
When their plane crashes in the wilds of Alaska, billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins), photographer Robert Green (Alec Baldwin), and assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) swim from the wreckage, soon realizing that they are stranded without food or survival gear. To make matters worse, the trio soon gain the interest of a massive Kodiak bear (Bart the Bear in one of his final onscreen roles). Using skills that he gleaned from reading various books, Charles tries to lead his compatriots to civilization but tensions begin to rise as the bear becomes bolder, and certain secrets are gradually revealed. THE EDGE is a taut thriller with wonderful performances, and a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith. While it is far from being a b-movie, I felt that I would be doing the film a real disservice if I failed to mention it in this list!
William Girdler’s cinematic entry into the realm of natural horror is an unforgettable classic, and set the standard for all of the murder-bruin films that followed. In his aptly-titled GRIZZLY, a one ton, 18-foot tall monster of a bear (portrayed by Teddy) gets a taste for human flesh after snacking on some hikers in a National Park. Soon more (female) victims are claimed, forcing a trio of heroes to unite in a quest to track down and kill the ravenous carnivore: Helicopter pilot and guide Tom Stober (Andrew Prine), Chief Ranger Mike Kelly (Christopher George), and naturalist/bear expert Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckal). The film ends with a climactic stand-off, with Mike Kelly as the last man standing after he turns the tables on the nearly triumphant Grizzly with the aid of a bazooka!
Hot on the heels of JAWS (which it borrows from quite a bit), GRIZZLY, which was shot for less than a million dollars, raked in a whopping $39 million at the box office and put director William Girdler on the map! Sadly it was also one of the last films that he would ever complete. Just two years later, Girdler would die in a helicopter accident in the Philippines while scouting locations for a new film. Lucky for us, he managed to finish DAY OF THE ANIMALS (which features an amazing sequence where a shirtless, and murderously insane Leslie Nielsen attempts to wrestle a bear) and most of THE MANITOU. The totally unhinged ending of that film was done after Girdler’s untimely death, which I guess is what he would’ve wanted?
But the GRIZZLY story doesn’t stop there Vault Dwellers….
Seven years after GRIZZLY (briefly) became the most financially successful independent film of all time, a sequel went into production entitled GRIZZLY II: REVENGE (aka GRIZZLY II: THE PREDATOR and GRIZZLY II: THE CONCERT). Though the film takes place in Yellowstone National Park, the principal photography was completed in Hungary in 1983. The production ran out of money, so GRIZZLY II would remain unfinished and unreleased… until 2020! New footage was shot and (jarringly) edited with the old footage to produce a ahm…. complete narrative (?) which revolves around a big concert at Yellowstone just as a Grizzly goes into kill mode after poachers shoot and kill its cub. The enraged Grizzly goes on a rampage, and the main characters desperately try to stop it, or the concert, before the bear descends upon the unsuspecting concert crowds. I haven’t seen this one myself yet Vault Dwellers, but by most accounts GRIZZLY II is pretty awful. However it does boast Charlie Sheen, George Clooney, and Laura Dern in very minor roles so it’s got that going for it!
Boy this is an odd one gang, but kind of fun! As eight troublesome “teens” are taken to the titular GRIZZLY PARK to serve out a week of community service for their crimes, a serial killer named Butch (Jeff Watson) just so happens to escape and make his way there to hide out. But things take a strange turn when a Grizzly bear (Brody the Bear) butchers Butch and then begins mauling and dismembering the wayward teens. In the end, no one makes it out of the woods alive, except for kindly “Ranger Bob” (Glenn Morshower). As the film wraps up, authorities believe that Butch killed everyone while donning a bear costume (that was smuggled there by the kid nick-named “Trickster”), when in reality it was Ranger Bob and his Grizzly companion who were the real culprits! I saw this movie when it came out on DVD years ago, and although I can’t remember much about it, I do recall enjoying it. Methinks it’s time to revisit GRIZZLY PARK!
Beckett (Thomas Jane) and Rowan Moore (James Marsden) are estranged brothers: One is fresh out of prison after doing time for murder and looking to start over, while the other is a Sheriff’s deputy with a deaf-mute nature photographer/conservationist wife named Michelle (Piper Perabo). Naturally these two come together when a fig bucking Grizzly bear (Bart the Bear 2!) lumbers out of the Alaskan “Grizzly Maze” (that doesn’t actually exist?) and starts munching on the locals. Lashing out due to poaching and logging in its perceived territory, the “Red Machine” claims multiple victims before its final showdown with the Moore brothers. INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE has a heck of cast (along with Marsden, Perabo, and Jane, there’s also Billy Bob Thornton and Scott Glenn!) and delivers plenty of carnage thanks to SAW V director David Hackl. While it does enough right to warrant a look, INTO THE GRIZZLY MAZE is an ultimately forgettable entry into the natural horror sub-genre that sometimes focuses a bit too much family melodrama, and showcases some dodgy CGI.
I guess you might say that this Western is the progenitor of killer bear cinema. THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY stars Clint Walker as Jim Cole, a retired lawman who inherits a ranch from his deceased uncle. Though he’s got a positive outlook, Jim has to contend with a greedy land baron named Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn!) that wants his property, a bounty hunter named Cass Dowdy (Leo Gordon) who still has a chip on his shoulder after being arrested by Jim years earlier, and a mean-spirited grizzly bear called “Satan” (Bozo the Bear) that has been terrorizing the locals and murdering their livestock with glee! After suffering the loss of some pigs, a prize bull, and most of his cattle, Jim and his cohort Sam (played by Don Haggerty, the father of Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty!) attempt to hunt down Satan, but the bear proves too wily for them! Eventually Satan claims Sam, and attempts to snack on Jim’s son Charlie (Kevin Brodie). In a surprising turn of events, Cass Dowdy ends up sacrificing himself to save the boy, which allows Jim to get off a clean shot to end Satan’s reign of terror!
I absolutely adore John Frankenheimer’s eco-horror classic, to the point where I lobbied for its Blu-ray release back in 2019! The film stars Robert Foxworth as the cynical Dr. Robert Verne, who is sent by the EPA to the forests of Maine to write a report on the impact that a paper mill is having on the local Native American population and surrounding environment. After conducting some tests, Dr. Verne discovers that the entire area, and everything living in it, has been polluted with methyl-mercury.
This revelation explains a lot of the high-strangeness going on in the region, including the existence of a giant mutant grizzly bear that the Indians refer to as Katahdin (Kevin Peter Hall)! Eventually the doc, his wife (Talia Shire), and the rest of the film’s ridiculously impressive cast (Victoria Racimo, Armand Assante, Richard Dysart, et al.) find themselves being hunted by the enraged mutant, and flee through the forest to a cabin in order to make a final stand against the deformed creature! PROPHECY is a film that takes itself way too seriously, but I can’t help but love it for so readily embracing its ludicrous plot. If you see one mutant monster bear movie this year, make sure it’s PROPHECY! If you see two then make sure the other is ANNIHILATION, which briefly features a horrifying CGI bear-strosity!
Available at Amazon: Currently out of print. Watch for free on YouTube!
Produced as part of the last batch of After Dark Films’ 8 Films to Die For, UNNATURAL features a genetically altered Polar Bear that escapes from a secluded lab in the Alaskan wilderness. After making short work of the lab staff, the bear makes a beeline straight for a nearby cabin full of people (including James Remar and Sherilyn Fenn), who must fight to survive against the scientifically-manufactured bi-polar bear! Much like PROPHECY, there’s not a real bear in sight: the creature is brought to life via a man in a none-too-convincing Polar Bear suit. (There’s also some animatronics, or puppetry, utilized here as well.)
A lot of the scenes are filmed to purposely obscure the bear so you mostly just catch glimpses of it during nighttime scenes, or as it peeks out from under the cover of pine trees in broad daylight. Though UNNATURAL’s running time is just under ninety minutes, the movie sure feels a lot longer, but it’s all almost worth it for the awesomely ridiculous finale where the mortally wounded Markos (Remar) charges the bear on a snowmobile that has an ice auger mounted to the front. The cherry on top is Markos’ dying words that he utters to Dr. Hanna Lindval (Fenn), the woman responsible for creating the beast: “Please stop what you’re doing. It’s…. unnatural.” While the doc shows sorrow after Markos’ sacrifice, as the film ends we see her doing an infomercial (with Ray Wise!) for the genetics company she works for!
Just as BACKCOUNTRY and COCAINE BEAR were inspired by true stories, Japan’s YELLOW FANGS (aka RIMEINZU: UTSUKUSHIKI YUUSHA-TACHI) is also based upon actual events, most notably the 1915 Sankenbetsu Brown Bear Incident. A large Ussuri Brown Bear woke early from hibernation and terrorized a village in Hokkaido for a full week, claiming seven victims before finally being brought down by an expert bear hunter. The film nearly follows this story, but tosses in a MULAN-esque sub-plot about a young girl that would rather buck tradition by hunting down the woman-eating bear (called “Red Spots” by the villagers) than settle down and get married.
Directed by Sonny Chiba (with a little guidance from legendary filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku) YELLOW FANGS is an entertaining period piece that stumbles a bit when the star attraction isn’t on the screen! But when “Red Spots” shows up, things immediately get cranked to eleven, and the proceedings instantly become jaw-droppingly entertaining! The bear (portrayed by a man in a costume) proves to be frighteningly intelligent, has a real mean right hook, and is eventually defeated in a brutal two-on-one battle during an energetic climax that literally brings the house down! Definitely file this one under “must be seen to be believed!”
Thank you “beary” much for scoping out this list Vault Dwellers! I hope it helped you discover a few gems you never knew existed, or at least gave you a few ideas for something to watch before (or after) you see COCAINE BEAR! Speaking of which, definitely do yourselves a favor and go see it gang because the movie is a blast from start to finish! It’s a surprisingly well-crafted film with a great cast, that embraces its absurd premise and maintains a good balance between its humor and gore! Also be sure to remain seated during the credits because there are two short scenes that reveal the fates of several characters who survived the Cocaine Bear’s rampage!