Alligator (1980) / Horror-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: R for violence, gore and language
Running Time: 89 min.
Cast: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Sydney Lassick, Jack Carter, Perry Lang, Henry Silva, Bart Braverman
Director: Lewis Teague
Screenplay: John Sayles
Review published June 1, 2005
For generations, people have rumored that there were alligators in big city sewers, flushed down the toilets by owners of baby alligators who no longer wanted to care for them as they became larger and more ferocious. Seizing on this urban legend, Alligator continues the post-Jaws trend of horror films about nature going wild and attacking humanity, only this time, it's done with an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek flair. Like most of its brethren, the calamity starts when humans decide to tinker around with Mother Nature, resulting in animals that aren't all that happy to be disturbed, especially when they are removed from their natural habitat. Also like most, Alligator closely adheres in plot to the Jaws formula, but with a limited budget and b-grade actors, the creators seem to know they are making schlock, and thankfully they try to make it fun.
Alligator's opening scenes show how young Marisa would acquire a baby alligator as a pet, but this proves to be short-lived, as her cranky father ends up flushing Ramon (as the girl has dubbed it) down the commode. The movie then shifts to present day, where Chicago is abuzz with new of dismembered body parts being found in the sewers beneath the city. With murder being the most likely scenario, grizzled homicide detective David Madison (Forster, Jackie Brown) is assigned to get to the bottom of who has caused this, although the pressures of the job, along with the continuous stories in the paper relating to his checkered past, have begun to drive him closer to the brink. Soon it becomes apparent that only a very large animal could have created such carnage, although alligators never grow that large. Perhaps a little genetic tampering to the food supply is the cause?
One of the more intriguing things about Alligator is that the screenplay is by none other than acclaimed writer and director John Sayles (The Challenge, Lone Star). This marks his second creature feature, coming off of the equally popular Jaws-like spoof, Piranha. This would also be the second film that Sayles would collaborate with director Lewis Teague (The Jewel of the Nile, Cujo) on, as their previous movie, The Lady in Red. Unlike these flicks, Alligator is not a Roger Corman production, although the campy writing and the low-budget thrills are definitely right up his alley, perfectly in keeping with the cheesy low-brow tradition of high concept, low expense movie making. Sayles keeps the material light, and the in jokes are most welcome in what could have been a very bad monster movie otherwise. "Honeymooners" fans will especially enjoy that the first victim of the giant alligator is named Edward Norton, alluding to the Art Carney character that worked in a sewer.
Despite the modest budget, Alligator benefits from good casting. Forster the perfect guy to play a down-and-out veteran cop, while Robin Riker (Stepmonster, Body Chemistry II) gives her smaller role some personality that makes her a good foil for Forster, and fits in nicely as a potential love interest. The special effects, while probably not really fooling anyone today, are pretty good for its time, with nice use of puppetry and a real-life alligator walking around miniature representations of the city streets. When the alligator chomps on a human, the effect seems more real than not, and it's believable enough, if you're willing to suspend a little disbelief.
What it all comes down to is how much you enjoy cheesy creature features. If you're expecting something on the level of Jaws, forget it. However, out of the myriad of Jaws clones, including some of the Jaws sequels, Alligator fares better than most. Not much mainstream appeal, so this one's for genre fans only.
©2005 Vince Leo