Monday, June 8, 2009

Alligator (1980) review


Robert Forster (Det. David Madison), Robin Riker (Dr. Marisa Kendall), Henry Silva (Colonel Brock), Michael Gazzo (Chief Clark), Dean Jagger (Slade), Sydney Lassick (Luke Gutchel), Perry Lang (Kelly)

Directed by Lewis Teague

A young girls father flushes her pet baby alligator down the toilet and years later, it grows to enormous size after feasting on an illegal growth hormone from a pharmaceutical company in Chicago. Killing a handful of sewer workers and others unfortunate enough to venture below the street, the outsized gator eventually erupts from the sewer and wreaks havoc throughout the city.

Former Roger Corman protege, Lewis Teague directs this excellent action-horror throwback to the much beloved creature features of the 1950's and the Nature Gone Amuck renaissance of the 1970's. With a script by John Sayles (PIRANHA, THE HOWLING, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), another Corman acolyte, the screenplay is peppered with various in jokes and a tone that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. There are moments where the film is genuinely creepy and there are also times where the film evokes a laugh or two from the audience. Teague and Sayles seamlessly balance both as well as creating some memorable characters aiding immensely in the enjoyment of this cult horror classic. Sayles would soon go on to both write and direct such high profile movies such as MATEWAN (1987) and EIGHT MEN OUT (1988).

In addition to directing action films such as THE LADY IN RED (1979) and NAVY SEALS (1990), Lewis Teague also directed CUJO (1983) and CAT'S EYE (1985), both based on the works of novelist, Stephen King. Initially Teague didn't like the script for ALLIGATOR, but was enamored that the main plot point was borrowed from a supposed urban legend about New Yorkers having alligators as pets, growing bored with them and later flushing the gators down the toilet where they end up in the sewer system. John Sayles was brought on board to take over as scriptwriter.

He disliked the original story which was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In that original write up, the creature grew enormous after ingesting beer that had spilled into the sewer systems from a nearby beer factory. It would seem based on that initial storyline, there was very little interest in making even a moderately serious horror movie as opposed to a straight comedy.

Robert Forster is spot on in the role of Detective David Madison. He's a tortured soul who feels responsible for the death of his partner some years prior. Because of circumstances resulting from that incident, other cops are reticent and cautious to work with him. This plot point is delved further when Madison goes into the sewer for clues surrounding the recent spate of dismemberment murders. One police officer, Kelly, feels brave enough to go with him below ground.

Of course, once they get there, the duo run into the hungry monster in one of the most tense sequences in the film. What's interesting is that Kelly is killed and Madison wakes up in a hospital and now has an even bigger burden on his shoulder. It also doesn't help that he tells the tale of a gigantic alligator that gobbled up his new partner and that this creature is responsible for the other murders.

Adding even more to Forster's character is a running gag that emerges near the beginning. Madison is battling hair loss and jokes surface from time to time much to Madison's chagrin. Forster came up with the idea for the hair gags and they were ultimately used in the finished movie. In Teague's original version, though, the hair gags were removed. Forster was a bit disappointed after seeing a cut of the then unreleased film. Fortunately, these very welcome and funny bits were soon put back in when a friend of Teague's told him they should stay in the picture. Without them, Forster's role would still be interesting, but adding this extra layer makes his very natural performance all the more rewarding.

Teague met Forster while shooting second unit for Roger Corman on a film called AVALANCHE (1978). The two became friends and Teague stated that he'd like to do a movie with Forster at some point down the road. Forster soon took a small part in Teague's THE LADY IN RED (1979), another production for Roger Corman dealing with gangster, John Dillinger.

Another scene that is right funny occurs just before Madison and Kelly make the jaunt into the depths of the sewer system. A strange man enters the police station and admits to having killed the man in the sewer. He then states he's come to blow everybody up opening his shirt to reveal his chest strapped with dynamite that's wired to explode! Going into a humorous diatribe about what he wanted to be when he grew up, Madison and Kelly manage to subdue the insane man and disengage the "explosive device" only to find out it's actually a radio! This scene seemingly has no real function in the movie, but it does as both the dynamite and timing device come into play later in the flick.

Robin Riker is a lively, jovial and perky pleasure to watch onscreen. She plays the Herpetologist, Dr. Marisa Kendall. What's most funny about her character is that the giant alligator is actually her childhood pet, Ramon. This is all seen during the opening when her dad flushes the poor alligator down the toilet setting the events to transpire into motion. Riker is a beautiful actress with mesmerizing eyes and an infectious smile. She has worked extensively in television before and since appearing in ALLIGATOR (1980) as well as a scant few movies here and there including some erotic thrillers during the 1990's.

Then there's Henry Silva as the big game hunter, Colonel Brock. He's not in the movie a great deal and one could probably say he's a bit underused, but his scenes are very memorable especially during his first scene where he's introduced to Detective Madison. The following scene is one of the funniest of the whole movie wherein Brock is being interviewed by an NBC reporter (the irony is that ALLIGATOR was a massive hit for the ABC network at the time! However, an ABC reporter is also seen onscreen at one point). In it, he describes the mating sounds of a male alligator in what is surely one of the least subtle and creative "pick up lines" seen in the movies. Silva's last scene in the movie is also memorable in which he has the giant gator cornered in a trash filled alley. Guess who wins?

According to Teague, when ALLIGATOR was ready to be released theatrically, all the studios bid on it. Curiously, producer Brandon Chase decided to hold onto the rights to the picture and distribute the film himself. Proving a very difficult task to personally distribute the film, the picture only managed a sporadic public showing. Despite receiving good critical notices, the movie failed to find an audience from lack of exposure. Eventually though, there was a light at the end of the sewer drain as the ABC Network paid Chase 3 million dollars for two airings on television.

Whereas success eluded this vigorously energetic monster movie on the big screen, it found extreme popularity on the small screen becoming the biggest moneymaking independent picture ever to be shown on television up to that time. This later prompted ABC to ask for a sequel a decade later. Robert Forster was likewise given the script for the sequel, but wisely passed on it. Furthermore, the less said about ALLIGATOR 2: THE MUTATION the better.

When it did play on television, ALLIGATOR (1980) featured at least one sequence that wasn't in the theatrical versions. This was a common practice at the time for a theatrical film to have extra scenes for television airings to make up for bits and pieces excised for questionable content. In the extra tv sequence, a woman is in her back yard hanging up clothes with her baby close by. The phone rings and she rushes into the house to answer it leaving the child unattended. An offscreen crash through a fence is heard and the alligator (also offscreen) passes by. Cut to the woman hanging up the phone as she rushes back outside only to find her back yard in shambles and her baby missing. She approaches an overturned laundry basket as the music swells. Turning it over, there hides her baby safe and sound. There's another small sequence that takes place at the beginning showing Marisa's dad trying to get the top of their convertible situated just as it begins to rain. This scene was included on television versions as well.

The gore in ALLIGATOR isn't extreme, but it's plentiful. There's a good number of scenes where victims lose various limbs, or are chewed to pieces, or even swallowed whole by the rampaging gator. One of the most shocking scenes and one that gets the most talk is one that involves the death of a small boy at a masquerade party. It's night and two boys dressed as pirates bring another little boy out to the pool. They plan to make him walk the plank. As the boy gets atop the diving board, the mother calls out his name and turns on the lights in the pool.

Just as the lights come on, the giant monster is waiting inside the pool opening his ferocious maw till his meal is pushed into the water. The clear water turns crimson as the gator devours the child. No doubt this sequence raised some eyebrows and as a kid seeing the film for the first time, it scared me half to death and along with PIRANHA (1978), was instrumental in keeping me from ever swimming in a pool at night.

Another wild sequence has the rampaging reptile trash the party being held by the seedy and devious pharmaceutical company head and his equally scheming son in law. Needless to say, the crooked characters seen during the film all get their just desserts. This bloody sequence of set destruction concludes with the monster smashing a limo to a pulp with its massive tail making a gruesome mess of those inside. The huge mechanical gator utilized for the production was very impressive, but, like Bruce the shark in JAWS (1975), it didn't work very well.

Having already been constructed before filming began some three years prior, it sat inside a warehouse and eventually disentegrated during the shoot. Another much heavier creature was constructed and proved cumbersome to move around. Miniatures of real alligators were an alternative when it proved near impossible to use the large mechanical monster for the duration of the picture. Shot in five weeks for 1.5 million, half of the movie was shot in real underground locations with the other sewer sequences being realized from several studio sets created for the production. A lot of Roger Corman's New World employees worked on the picture as well.

The ending of the film is quite exciting as Madison and Kendall pursue the gator as it makes its way back into the sewer system. The editing on the film is very good especially during this final sequence. Originally, the alligator was supposed to survive and an ending depicting the total destruction of the creature was ordered by the producer, Brandon Chase. As with the exceptional editing, the music is also successful at capturing the right mood in the best scary tradition. Some of the cues recall the main theme in JAWS (1975), while others give a slithery, slimy sense of dread whenever the huge gator is onscreen, or the threat of the creature is near. Other cues are stock library tracks that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who is a fan of the original TWILIGHT ZONE television series. These same cues can also be heard in John 'Bud' Cardos' excellent creature feature, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977).

Many other giant alligator and crocodile movies came in the wake of ALLIGATOR. Actually, there was a horrible Thai film entitled CROCODILE from 1979 that came before Teague's film. That picture operated as an almost note for note copy of JAWS. Over the years many more similar movies popped up. Two of the best were the Aussie creature features, DARK AGE (1986) and the more recent, ROGUE (2006).

ALLIGATOR (1980) possesses a certain charm that all these other more serious giant creature horror flicks are lacking. Lewis Teague and his crew of technicians and meticulous actors created one of the best remembered and best loved horror films of all time. Containing an enormous amount of entertainment value from its performances, to the witty script, to the scares and humorous moments, ALLIGATOR is one cult classic that should not be missed.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate DVD.

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