“He was out on medication most of the time that he was here… He kept coming up with some garbage about alligators in the sewers.”
It’s summer! And we’re celebrating at SAW with some of our favorite summer movies. Jaws, the first Summer Blockbuster, was released 45 years ago and is having its week, with a great writeup for the Canon by King Alvarez and a “That Scene” from Vincent Kane. I won’t be reviewing Jaws, though – instead this week and next I’ll be doing a couple of Jaws “ripoff” films, horror movies inspired by the original. That they both have screenplays by John Sayles is just a coincidence, I’m sure!
First up, Alligator. My favorite crocodilian movie of all time. I have a few that I really enjoy – Rogue, Lake Placid and last year’s Crawl, for instance – but Lewis Teague’s third film is the standard that I measure them all by. I don’t even remember when I first saw Alligator – it was probably late night on cable somewhere, maybe Night Flight or even HBO. I remember loving it, though, even as I laughed at things like an explosion that flips a car but leaves a garbage can unmoved.
It was another decade or more before I got to see it again, and it was still as fun, gory and funny as I remembered. In the years since first seeing it I’ve gained an appreciation and love for the “animal attack” horror sub-genre, and watching Alligator now it’s easy to see and appreciate the satire in a way that I probably didn’t when I first saw it. Like the best parody movies, Alligator manages to be a great example of the movies that it’s making fun of – playing the characters and storyline straight while having fun with some of the genre’s absurdities.
Alligator has been difficult to find, both in media and streaming, for a while now. Anchor Bay put out a DVD in 2007 that almost immediately went out of print. It still goes for ridiculous prices online, but I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy at my local Bull Moose a few years ago. It’s relatively bare-bones, but there’s an interview with John Sayles and a commentary track with director Lewis Teague and star Robert Forster. There’s no Region A Blu-ray, though Germany and Spain both have releases – I can’t tell you if they’re any good or not.
Alligator is not currently available for streaming anywhere I could find, though it pops up on YouTube and cable occasionally.
Written by John Sayles, whose genre credits include Piranha and The Howling, and directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo, The Jewel of the Nile), Alligator does just about everything right for a monster movie. It gives us believable, likeable characters, decent monster effects, and some great, gory set pieces for them all to play in. There’s also a sort of knowing self-awareness – the movie knows it’s a monster movie, it knows it’s a ripoff of Jaws, and has some fun with the clichés.
A baby alligator, purchased as a pet, is flushed down the toilet and ends up in the sewers. Many years later it’s grown gigantic on a steady diet of lab animals injected with experimental growth hormones. Detective Madison (Robert Forster), a world-weary officer who’s a little sensitive about his hairline, is the only one who sees a connection between the random body parts being pulled out of the sewer. Nobody believes him until an annoying newspaper reporter manages to catch some pictures of the thing (as it’s eating him). General mismanagement by the corrupt mayor (who’s in the pocket of the very pharmaceutical company whose experiments caused the abnormal growth) leads to him going rogue and attempting to take out the huge crocodilian with the help of a lovely herpetologist.
The thing I love about movies like Alligator – which somehow reminds me of films by Larry Cohen in this way – is that the fun doesn’t get in the way of the monster movie cheese. That first scene at the alligator farm includes an attack that wouldn’t have been out of place in Faces of Death, but it’s almost immediately followed by the scene of the little girl buying a baby alligator. “I’ll call him Ramone!” And then fairly quickly by the father flushing the thing down the toilet. “We’ll tell her we found it dead, like we did with the hamsters!” Don’t worry, the movie seems to say, we know what you’re here for and we’re gonna give it to you – people are gonna get eaten – but we’re going to have a little fun along the way.
Part of that fun is knowing that the people that you really want to get eaten are definitely going to get eaten. The great Sydney Lassick puts in a turn as a dodgy pet owner, Gutchel, with more concern for cash and getting caught than he has for his charges. He’s providing stray dogs to the lab, but when they start to run thin he’s got plenty of other options, “How about cats? I got plenty of cats. I also got a parrot I’d like to get rid of.” Played with typical neurotic sweatiness by Lassick, Gutchel is the kind of weaselly character you hope gets his comeuppance – and the movie happily obliges, with the result that he’s only identifiable by his Hawaian shirt. Given that this happens fairly early on, it gives us hope that the equally weaselly Mayor, moral-less scientist and his evil Captain of Industry boss will also be on the receiving end of some scaly justice.
Rober Forster is an actor that never seemed to receive the work and accolades he deserved. Though he was constantly working, his parts were rarely the big, leading man roles that might have catapulted him into a higher level of fame. He’s one of my favorites, though, and he’s fantastic here as David Madison – managing to be the charismatic “tough cop” leading man, and have a sense of self-awareness and even humor about himself that makes him extremely likeable. Sayles plays with genre stereotypes, giving Madison the “got his partner killed” background that runs true when the rookie he’s paired with gets eaten and making him self-conscious about his receding hairline. (And those scenes with the rookie in the sewer are really good – including a great “monster briefly seen in the background” bit and a truly emotional performance by Forster when the alligator pulls the young man from his grip.)
The movie is full of good performances, with Robin Riker as herpetologist Marisa Kendall and Michael V. Gazzo being standouts. (I always want to just randomly yell “DAVID!” in Gazzo’s voice for some reason – though people would probably think I was quoting Independence Day.) Sayles ties the alligator together with Kendall – with her specifically being the child whose alligator was flushed and eventually became the title creature. It should be too-cute, but it’s part of the charm.
The limited effects are handled quite will, mixing a decent full-sized model with an animated head and shots of real alligators in miniature environments. We even get a decent miniature animation of the monster coming up through a sidewalk. There’s plenty of gore (my wife declined to keep watching after the first 10 minutes) and cheesy-but-great closeups of people getting swallowed alive. The set pieces are great – a highlight being a fancy wedding reception that gets crashed by the alligator, who somehow knows just WHO to eat, and who to crush to death in their limo. There’s also a ‘great white hunter’ (Henry Silva) brought in to kill the monster, though that goes just about as well as expected.
One of my favorite little scenes involves kids at a pirate themed birthday party. Two of them bring the birthday boy out to the backyard pool to make him walk the plank… but of course the alligator is hiding in the pool. Any other creature-feature would give us a thrill of danger before the little kid was saved, but Alligator doesn’t make that mistake. (How many people does this thing eat, anyway? He goes through people like they were Lays potato chips.)
Things end satisfactorily with explosions, though we don’t get out without a setup for a sequel – which was terrible, FYI.
The Bottom Line
Alligator is a movie that knows its limitations and works within them to create a fun, funny movie with some decent creature effects and likeable characters. It’s easy to love and a lot of fun, especially if you already have a fondness for the genre (that being crappy 70’s monster movies, or ripoffs of Jaws).