Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
reviews, per se. They are articles for people who have already seen the film or read the book in question--meaning that there will be spoilers. If you're already familiar with the material being covered, or don't mind the plot being spoiled, please read on and leave a comment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

[Aquaphobia] Alligator (1980)

This film opens up at a roadside tourist attraction, where audience members watch in glee and horror as an alligator wrestler is mauled by his reptilian opponent. Amazingly, young Marisa isn't emotionally scarred, and she still talks her mother into purchasing her a baby 'gator which she affectionately names Ramon. Her father is none too thrilled about the new house pet, though, and he flushes it down the toilet as soon as Marisa goes to school the next morning.

Alligator - Theatrical Poster
Theatrical Poster
We flash forward twelve years, and homicide detective David Madison is out shopping for a new canine companion. It seems that his last one mysteriously disappeared recently, something that has been occurring around town with a disturbing frequency—or so says sleazy pet shop owner Gutchell.

Another thing happening with disturbing frequency is the appearance of severed human limbs in the sewage treatment plant. That's two cases that Detective Madison finds himself involved in right off the bat—one large, one small—but things being what they are in horror movies, they're actually two parts of a greater whole.

Gutchell is actually behind the disappearances of the local dogs, which he then sells to Arthur, a research scientist for Slade Pharmaceuticals, who is experimenting with growth hormones. Once the dogs are of no more use, their corpses are unceremoniously dumped in the sewer—out of sight, out of mind.

It's a pretty lucrative gig for Gutchell, I would imagine. First he sells a dog to a family, then he steals the dog back, then he sells the dog to the pharmaceutical company, and finally he sells the family another dog to replace the one they lost. That's three times the profit on one single canine.

Turns out, though, that little Ramon survived his journey through the john, and has been living in the darkness of the city's sewer system, making meals out of the hormone-pumped puppies. This, in turn, accelerated his growth to outlandish proportions, and when the dogs were no longer enough to satisfy his growing appetite, it was no big deal. Sometimes people come into the sewer, too.

Ramon isn't the only one who has grown up over the years. His former owner Marisa is now Dr. Kendall, resident reptile expert at the university. After Madison has a run-in with Ramon while investigating the sewers, he and his Chief seek her out for assistance, as everyone else thinks he has lost his damn mind. It's only after tabloid reporter (and Madison's nemesis) Kemp gets killed while simultaneously providing proof of the creature's existence that it becomes big news.

The city seems to have Alligator Fever, but that's nothing compared to what happens when Ramon escapes
Alligator - Ramon, Bustin' Loose
Ramon, Bustin' Loose
from the sewer by bursting right through the street, interrupting a gang of young punks playing stickball. It's the first time that we get a good look at the grown up Ramon, and although he's no Godzilla, he's still pretty damn big. According to one of the stickball players, it was as big as an El Dorado (plus the tail, of course), but Marisa later estimates that its actual size is 35-40 feet, based on a footprint it leaves behind.

Citizens begin to become 'gator chow, everyone is in a panic (except for cheerful street vendors who cash in by selling alligator memorabilia), and city officials bring in big game hunter Colonel Brock to track the animal down. Madison continues his investigation despite being pulled off the case, and is summarily dismissed from his job for "pushing too hard". Never one to quit, he goes rogue and pushes even harder. When Marisa asks him what he's going to do, he responds "I'm gonna go out there, I'm gonna find that alligator, and I'm gonna kick its ass!"

Madison forces Ramon back into the sewer, where he uses an explosive (and the natural methane gas of the sewer system) to blow that overgrown reptile to kingdom come. But just before the end credits begin to roll, we see another baby alligator arrive via the toilet train in the sewer, signifying that the whole thing may just happen all over again.

The strength of this film is that it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it takes itself serious enough that it doesn't become a joke. There are some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Madison and the doomed rookie cop Kelly are investigating the sewers by flashlight, but they are balanced out with a mellow sense of humor—there are sly pop cultural references to other famous sewer folk, such as Ed Norton from THE HONEYMOONERS and Henry Lime from THE THIRD MAN, and probably more that went over my head. This is, after all, a movie about a giant alligator terrorizing a city. The premise is almost inherently ridiculous and the filmmakers know that, but the police procedural side of things manages to keep us grounded in some semblance of reality while solid characters and a good script make it almost seem plausible...almost.

The special effects were pretty great for its time and budget, making good use of miniature sets and animatronics, depending on the situation. I've seen a lot worse in a lot more recent movies. Say what you will, but I can suspend disbelief a lot easier with good practical effects than I can with poor CGI.

The characters were all fairly well-written with their share of personality quirks that made them feel genuine—for instance, our hero, Madison, was self-deprecating about his receding hairline. On the serious side, he had previously lost a partner—and lost another with Kelly—and was thus viewed as bad luck by the other cops, which is probably something that real police officers actually have to deal with.

Alligator - Madison & Company
Madison & Company
Too often in genre films, our "heroes" are actually quite irritating if not outright bad people. Amazingly, the characters here that we were supposed to like were actually likable, and there wasn't an obnoxious teenager anywhere to be found. It was a cast full of adults, which is both rare and refreshing. Also, not all of the victims were assholes, so we weren't conditioned to accept their deaths—though certainly some of them were. The death scenes ran the gamut, from a child being devoured in a swimming pool (!) to an amazing attack at a hoity-toity engagement party where the crooked mayor and Slade himself both receive what they've got coming to them.

Critics are quick to call this a JAWS rip-off, just as they do with virtually every animal attack movie released between 1975 and 1985, but it's an unfair assessment. Yes, both feature unusually large aquatic carnivores preying on the public, but those are superficial similarities. By those standards, JAWS is a rip-off of Moby Dick—there are similarities in theme and hints of inspiration, but that's the evolutionary nature of art. One thing must always come before another.

Alligator - Maids Taste Yummy
Maids Taste Yummy
ALLIGATOR is, of course, spun off from the persistent urban legend that alligators live in the sewers beneath major metropolitan areas, as a result of being flushed down the toilet precisely as shown here. It is, granted, primarily hokum, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable and ripe for exploration and exploitation. One has to wonder why the catalog of urban legends isn't pilfered more often than it is for cinematic fare.

The script was written by John Sayles, who had previously written PIRANHA—that film and the man's other credits have already been covered here. It was directed by Lewis Teague, whose filmography is spotty but quite interesting. His first feature was the unbalanced sex romp/crime drama DIRTY O'NEIL (1974), and he went onto direct THE LADY IN RED (1979) for Roger Corman (also scripted by Sayles); the citizens-on-patrol film FIGHTING BACK (1982); Stephen King adaptations CUJO (1983) and CAT'S EYE (1985); the romantic adventure sequel THE JEWEL OF THE NILE (1985); the unlikely buddy cop movie COLLISION COURSE (1989) with Pat Morita and Jay Leno; Charlie Sheen action film NAVY SEALS (1990); the made-for-TV movie THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: REUNION (1997); and the failed pilot movie JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (1997).

David Madison was played by the always-dependable Robert Forster, who has been in films of all shapes and sizes.  After a few supporting roles, he starred in the critical darling MEDIUM COOL (1969), and moved on from there to appear in the made-for-TV clone horror THE DARKER SIDE OF TERROR (1979); Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE (1979); Larry Cohen and William Lustig’s MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE (1993); the Blaxploitation-reborn flick ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996); Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997); the questionable remake PSYSCHO (1998); and David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001).  He had a recurring role on the TV series HEROES, and appeared in the penultimate episode of BREAKING BAD.

Marissa was played by Robin Riker, whose career is comprised mostly of one-off appearances on television shows, though she did have significant roles on the sitcoms BROTHERS (1984-1989) and GET A LIFE (1990-1992).  She has appeared in the erotic thriller BODY CHEMISTRY II: VOICE OF A STRANGER (1992); the comedy-monster movie STEPMONSTER (1993); and the family-friendly fantasy DON’T LOOK UNDER THE BED (1999);  but she is probably best known for her role on soap opera THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, from 2008-2010.

Slade was played by Dean Jagger, whose career dates back to the 1929 drama THE WOMAN FROM HELL, and he worked consistently until the start of the 1980s.  Genre fans may recall him from Victor Halperin’s REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936); Hammer Films’ X: THE UNKNOWN (1956); the muscle car thriller VANISHING POINT (1971); the alternate-earth sci-fi film THE STRANGER (1973); zombie horror film EVIL TOWN (1977); evil alien chiller END OF THE WORLD (1977); and Robert Clouse’s Bruce Lee mishmash THE GAME OF DEATH (1978).  He died in 1987 as a result of heart disease.
Alligator - The Ideal Alligator
The Ideal Alligator

As is standard, ALLIGATOR was followed up with a (belated) sequel, ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION (1991), which is much maligned, even by steadfast fans of the original. What is not so standard, though, is the board game adaptation from Ideal in 1980, where players took turns either adding items to, or taking items out of, the alligator's mouth (depending on where the spinner landed), and hoping its jaws didn't snap shut on your hand.

Sounds like fun for the whole family.


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