Coming to DVD Tuesday, Sept. 18th
Robert Forster as David Madison
Robin Riker as Marisa Kendall
Michael V. Gazzo as Chief Clark
Dean Jagger as Slade
Sydney Lassick as Luke Gutchel
Jack Carter as Mayor
Perry Lang as Officer Jim Kelly
Henry Silva as Col. Brock
Bart Braverman as Thomas Kemp
Directed by Lewis Teague
In a post-“Jaws” world, humanity was berated for its crimes against nature by a sundry of crazed critters. William Girdler’s “Grizzly” (’76), “Orca” (’77) and “Tentacles” (’77) all yearned for a taste of that primal terror and, lest we forget. box office success tapped by Steven Spielberg. Nipping at the fins, suckers and paws of these blatant imitators is “Alligator,” producer Brandon Chase’s effort to cash-in on the nature-run-amok hype generated in the late-’70s/early-’80s. The man had a faux giant ‘gator stashed away in a Los Angeles warehouse, but no picture to use it in. Once productions funds were raised, Chase (who later went on to produce “The Sword and the Sorcerer”) pulled together a writing-directing team that helped transcend what could have been a brazen, shallow, dead-on-arrival copycat horror film to a cautionary tale with subtextual strata that descend deeper than the underground sewer system the titular freak of nature in this film is allowed to go.
Much of the credit for that goes to esteemed writer John Sayles who was already then paying his dues wading through other creature feature territory like Joe Dante’s “Piranha.” He had previously paired up with “Alligator” director Lewis Teague on “Lady in Red” and wrote and directed his drama “Return of the Secaucus 7.” Sayles brings panache to a knock-off film that generally doesn’t even ask for this much thought and care. Still, he brings his A-game to this B-movie laying in eco-aware and social class themes. “Alligator” has a nimble pace to it. It’s judicious in its exposure of the eponymous reptile and there’s a roguish charm that makes the far-fetched elements easy to swallow.
The devoured remains of a sanitation employee (named, strangely enough, Edward Norton) found at a water filtration plant in an unnamed Missouri city prompts cop David Madison (Robert Forster – a Teague regular at this point) to investigate the local sewer system for further evidence that could lead to the cause of Norton’s death. What he gets in his initial journey beneath the streets is the discovery of one super-sized ‘gator and one munched up partner. Naturally, his superiors greet his account with a dubious reaction, including the local ‘gator reptile expert-cum-love interest (Robin Riker). But a nosy reporter gets himself eaten and the evidence he leaves behind on his camera leaves the authorities no choice but to believe Madison. The ‘gator eventually goes topside and runs amok chomping on cops, socialites and even a kid (!). As Madison closes in on the gator and its origins, a corrupt bureaucracy keyed into to a local science facility experimenting on animals has him kicked off the force out of fear of being exposed. Does that stop the determined Madison from hunting the ‘gator down? Hell no.
“Alligator” is done on a modest scale that I can relate to a Larry Cohen film. Need to make a scene look hectic and serious? Wrangle as many boys in blue as you can, put some guns in their hands and throw them in front of a camera in spite of whatever screen experience they have. Want to show the alligator walking down the street? Get some overhead coverage, drop a live ‘gator on a miniature set and roll ’em! Teague – who’s proud to hail from the Corman school of directing – gets a lot of bang for his buck. He didn’t have to worry about the script because it was a confident work of its own (with meditative dialogue like “There’s a heavy penalty in this life for fear.”) which allowed him to focus on some genuinely decent surprises and set pieces. The ‘gator breaking through a sidewalk isn’t the film’s finest day but an early revelation of the beast lingering in the shadows of the sewers is highly effective. Teague’s mix of real and mechanical animal is an accomplished feat for the time and without the aid of CGI.
Forster, Riker, the raspy-voiced and easily excitable Michael Gazzo (“The Godfather: Part II”) and Henry Silva (“The Manchurian Candidate”) dedicatedly do their part. Sayles offers them enough layers of humor and humanity, needed amiable warm-blooded qualities to strike a balance with the film’s cold-blooded menace. But make no mistake about it, Sayles and Teague don’t skimp out on the grue. People are chomped, stomped and pulverized – so if you’re lookin’ for that with a smidgen of unforced commentary, “Alligator” is where it’s at. By the time you get to the end and see a graffiti scrawl on a sewer wall that reads “Harry Lime was Here” (a reference to “The Third Man”) you know there were some good intentions behind the making of this film. It’s got more to offer than what passes for a Sci-Fi Original Film this Saturday.
Lionsgate did a fantastic job cleaning up the film. Transfer is sharp given its age, colors look rich and the sound doesn’t warrant any complaints.
Alligator Author: In this sit-down interview with John Sayles, we get a taste of what was contained in the first draft of “Alligator” first brought to the scribe. According to him, the instigating factor for the main ‘gator’s mutation came from growing up in the sewers beneath a Milwaukee brewing company and the finale ended in a saw mill. Sayles objected to some of the logic problems the draft posed and gave it a page one rewrite. Not once does he talk down about the experience; instead he saw it as a creative opportunity that posed a variety of tonal challenges.
Director & Actor Commentary: Moderated by Dark Delicacies‘s Del Howison, this is an informed track with director Lewis Teague and Robert Forster that sputters into tedium about midway through. Teague’s energy is high, starting off on a cerebral step discussing his influences (“Jaws,” natch, “Wait Until Dark”) and the construction of creating fear. Together, he and Forster cite the ‘gator as being a representation of Madison’s past demons that need to be overcome. This was emphasized through a number of dream sequences that were excised; only one remained in the film. Howison splashes about in a productive effort to stir up discussion. He hooks a few good anecdotes from Teague who tells of the time when someone called the cops on the crew because when they saw a group of camouflaged men gathering around a manhole in the street, they assumed terrorists had touched down in America. To save himself from ridicule, Forester turned his actual balding into a joke in the film – a bit of welcome improvisation. And who knew? Stephen King is apparently a huge fan of the film, too. Well, we’re right there with ya, Steve.