Jaws instigated a series of “animals on a rampage” movies in the late 70s and early 80s: bears (Grizzly, 1976); whales (Orca, 1977); bees (The Swarm, 1978); bats (Nightwing, 1979). Universal Studios even attempted to recreate the magic (and mayhem) of its deadly great white shark with a murderous automobile in The Car (1977).
Of all the films to drop in on the wave of Spielberg’s benchmark blockbuster, few are as well-plotted and entertaining as Alligator. Scripted by John Sayles (who also helmed the terrific nature runs amok flick Piranha, 1978) and inspired by the urban myth that oversized alligators troll the New York sewer system, the film follows Chicago homicide detective David Madison (Robert Forester) and reptile expert Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) as they pursue a man-eating gator that’s been terrorizing The Windy City.
Roger Corman disciple Lewis Teague captures the B-movie spirit of his mentor, offering heavy doses of tongue-in-cheek humor and breath-stealing terror in equal measure. From its unambiguous title and primitive score to its campy creature design and well-observed characters, Alligator delivers the low-budget goods.
The film opens on the wandering eye of a reptile. The camera pulls out to reveal an alligator basking in the cold mud; its tough, scaly skin limned by the yellow glow of the sun. A man in worn jeans and frayed sneakers advances with caution. In a flash, the creature springs into action, its long snout snapping at the interloper with a force that would reduce flesh to shreds. The man sidesteps the vicious predator in one fluid motion. The view widens to unveil an enclosure within an animal park flanked by spectators. Viewers of the movie emit a breath of relief. An energetic emcee bolsters the excitement and apprehension of the display. The handler again pushes forward. His foot catches on a fallen tree sending him crashing to the swampy Earth. Before the plume of mud settles around him, the alligator sinks its strong jaws into the soft tissue of his leg.
Teague employs misdirection over and over to subvert audience expectation. By opening tight on the action, he conceals key details about the scene. Through the use of zooms, the audience becomes aware of what is really unfolding before them. Teague permits them to relax; it seems the characters are free from harm. The horrific portion of this fright flick will come later on. While their guard is down, he hits them hard.
In another instance, the alligator attacks a pet store owner who is disposing of animal carcasses in the sewer. The camera offers a subjective view through the eyes of the killer reptile. Rather than focus on the alligator, Teague uses POV to build suspense. As the assailant advances, the foreboding score kicks in, arousing a sense of danger in viewers. There is nothing original in the build up to the kill. Teague employs standard film grammar to accomplish the scene. Thus, when detective Madison makes his way into the sewer later on, audiences feel as if they know how the scene will play out. There is no mystery to the action, just an assumption that blood will flow. When the POV shot in this later scene is revealed not to be that of the alligator, but rather Madison’s partner, audiences are caught off guard. By deviating from what is expected, Teague creates a sense of unease in viewers. The outcome of the scene is uncertain. Now, he’s got them. The audience pulls in an intake of breath and leans forward in their seats. When the alligator attacks from an unexpected part of the frame, onlookers respond with giddy delight.
Audiences expect characters in horror films to be massacred in gross and disgusting ways. The killing of children though is not a common thing in main stream cinema. In one scene, a boy playing a pirate game with friends at night is caught by the carnivorous creature in his swimming pool and eaten in particularly grueling fashion. It is gross and gratuitous and gleefully effective.
Movies of this type hinge on their casting and Teague has assembled a collection of fine character actors including Michael Gazzo as an insecure police chief, Dean Jagger as a local tycoon who financed the illegal growth serum that caused the reptile to swell in size, Sydney Lassick as an unethical pet store owner and Henry Silva as an arrogant big game hunter brought in to track the gator. More than mere cannon fodder for the beast, they are presented in a way that feels fun but realistic.
At the heart of the film is Forester’s Madison, a man whose humility is on display at every turn. He routinely alludes to his receding hairline and consistently blames his shortcomings for the loss of his partner. Audiences relate to his fictive world, they feel his emotional state and root for him to succeed.
A subplot involving Madison’s contentious relationship with a news reporter named Thomas Kemp (Bart Braverman) has added weight when viewed today. Madison tells Kendall her misgivings shouldn’t be directed toward cops but rather the media. They use fear and despondency to sell papers. Braverman preys on the anxieties of his readers. When the first bodies turn up dead, he runs a headline alluding to a Jack the Ripper type killer running afoul through the city. When he presses Madison for a lead, the detective responds, “Go invent something.” Braverman comes back with a disingenuous story about Madison’s deceased partner.
Still, while Teague’s B-grade monster flick may mask observations about animal rights and problems with the news media, it is infused with all the silliness you’d expect from a flick about a killer gator stalking the sewers of Chicago. As an example, when a leg washes up at a water treatment plant, an employee comments on its alligator wing tipped shoes. When the pet store owner is approached by a pharmaceutical company collecting dogs for experimentation, he responds, ““How about cats? I got plenty of cats. I also got a parrot I’d like to get rid of.”
Alligator is a clever, campy and charmingly schlocky creature feature that horror buffs will love. Whether viewed as an exceedingly gory commentary about the left-wing press or a delightfully wacky popcorn thriller, it gives everyone a little something to sink their “jaws” into.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Director Lewis Teague had a string of successes in the 80s including Cujo, Cat’s Eye and The Jewel of the Nile. Robert Forester appeared in over 180 films and television shows throughout his eclectic career. He is probably best known for the roles of tough bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarrantio’s pulp crime thriller Jackie Brown and tenacious identity specialist Ed Galbraith in the Breaking Bad universe. Forester succumbed to brain cancer in 2019. He was 78. A sequel to Alligator dubbed Alligator II: The Mutation was released in 1990. It opened to poor box office and overwhelmingly negative reviews. Alligator is available on DVD from Lions Gate. Features include a commentary track with Teague and Forster. The film has yet to receive the blu ray treatment.