Strapping former US Marshall Jim Cole (Clint Walker) brings his wife Angela (Martha Hyer), son Charlie (Kevin Brodie), precocious little daughter Gypsy (Victoria Page Meyerink), teenage niece Meg (Candy Moore) and dog Solomon along with crusty cowpoke Sam Potts (Don Haggerty) out to Wyoming. Having turned in his badge, he aims to settle down on some farm land inherited from a relative. Unfortunately Angela is less than impressed when she sees the rickety shack that will be their home. Jim discovers his uncle left some hefty debts and only won the land in a poker game from embittered businessman Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn) who wants it back. Jed's delinquent sons take an unwholesome interest in Meg, though she takes a shine to the nicer one. In spite of ongoing harassment, Jim and his family set out to forge a substantial homestead only to come face to face with Satan, a giant grizzly bear that has terrorized the region for years. Following the death of his prized bull Jim tries to trap and kill Satan but bullets and brawn aren't enough to take down this unstoppable bear.
An interesting hybrid of the western with the man-versus-nature horror film, The Night of the Grizzly anticipates the more overtly horrific Grizzly (1976) although in this instance scenes of brutal violence and gripping suspense sit a trifle awkwardly amidst the wholesome family friendly tone. Aspects of the film are almost Disney-like such as the scene where Gypsy wanders into the woods to find a menagerie of cuddly critters at her doorstep. Nevertheless this offbeat fusion of visceral thrills with cosy comedy packs a certain idiosyncratic charm and the numerous broadly farcical episodes prove genuinely funny, e.g. Gypsy getting sprayed by a skunk, Meg's first taste of alcohol that turns her face green, a surreal gag involving a drunk chicken and a comedic sub-plot following Sam's awkward courtship by spinster storekeeper Wilhelmina Peterson (Nancy Kulp, of TV's The Beverly Hillbillies).
Scripted by Warren Douglas, a staple of television westerns like Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The High Chapperal, though he also wrote the features Cry Vengeance (1954) and Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957) and had a parallel career as an actor, the episodic plot is somewhat reminiscent of one of those bogus feature films condensed from an television series. Things amble along in amiable fashion playing to stock western themes of hard work, guts and self-sacrifice gradually taming the hostile wilderness. Director Joseph Pevney juggles several plot balls without settling on a definitive aim. He even includes a scene where a guitar-strumming Clint Walker serenades his wife with a song. A prolific television hand best known for helming numerous episodes of Star Trek along with many westerns on which Douglas was a screenwriter, Pevney's career on the big screen was more eclectic. Alongside the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle 3 Ring Circus (1954) he directed the famed Debbie Reynolds romantic comedy Tammy and the Batchelor (1957) and Lon Chaney Sr. biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney. The Night of the Grizzly was his last feature film though he remained active in television well into the 1980s.
Intercut with footage of a real trained bear, the man-in-the bear suit is none too convincing yet Pevney weaves an aura of real menace around Satan drawing the animal as a near-mythical force that shrugs off traps, gunfire and “kills for the fun of it.” Rugged man-mountain Jim Cole proves as formidable a force of nature as his hairy opponent. A staple of war films and westerns well into the Nineties, though is career also encompassed genre movies like Killdozer (1974), Deadly Harvest (1977), dodgy Hong Kong cut-and-paste job Serpent Warriors (1985) and the amusing horror comedy Hysterical (1983), Clint Walker inhabits his muscular role very well with able supporting from a lively cast including future Waltons star Ellen Corby as the feisty Hazel Squires and good old Jack Elam as lovable town oaf Hank who takes a shine to Gypsy. After a third bear attack sees Jim's cattle slaughtered, Jed Curry calls on sinister bounty hunter Cass Dowdy (Leo Gordon) to bag the bear before our hero collects the valuable reward money. Dowdy proves only too happy to do this since he carries a grudge against Jim for landing him in jail. It all builds to an eventful mano-a-mano-a-bruin that is well staged by Pevney.