AlligatorI’ve always liked this witty and intense monster movie from 1980.  It’s surely the finest killer gator flick ever, and a clear triumph of inspiration and enthusiasm over a low budget.

ALLIGATOR appears to have been conceived as one of the innumerable JAWS wannabes that appeared in the wake of that Steven Spielberg blockbuster, but it was created by two extremely skilled moviemakers: writer John Sayles and director Lewis Teague.  Sayles is one of America’s most respected independent filmmakers (with acclaimed films like MATEWAN, LONE STAR and PASSION FISH to his credit), but back in 1980 he was a prolific genre screenwriter.  His writing credits included PIRAHNA (another above-average JAWS knock-off), THE HOWLING, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and THE LADY IN RED for ALLIGATOR’S director Lewis Teague.  THE LADY IN RED, executive produced by Roger Corman, was Teague’s directorial debut, and ALLIGATOR his extremely accomplished sophomore effort.  For it he reportedly solicited advice from JAWS editor Verna Fields, and used it well.  Subsequent Teague projects include the Stephen King adapted CUJO and CAT’S EYE, along with THE JEWEL OF THE NILE and NAVY SEALS.

ALLIGATOR was incidentally based on an urban legend popular in the seventies positing that alligators sold as kids’ pets during the previous decade were flushed down toilets by outraged parents, consigning the critters to city sewers.   We see this dramatized early on in ALLIGATOR, when the young Marisa is given a baby alligator as a pet.  Her a-hole father, however, doesn’t want the thing in the house and flushes it down the toilet.  The gator ends up in the city sewers, where it ingests mounds of experimental hormones secreted by a local animal experimentation clinic—which cause it to grow into a forty foot monstrosity!

David is a distraught police inspector investigating a rash of sewer killings.  He gets far more than he bargained for upon spotting the giant alligator, which promptly chomps David’s rookie partner.

The police set up a vast search party to comb the sewers.  This inspires the gator to burst up through a city sidewalk and rampage through the city, devouring a cop, a young boy and a fisherman before making its way to a posh wedding party held by the corrupt head of the research clinic responsible for the gator’s condition—and who’s dispatched in the nastiest and most memorable of all the film’s killings.

David in the meantime starts up a relationship with the now grown-up Marisa (completely unaware that it’s her pet alligator causing all the strife).  The two concoct a plan to put an end to the gator’s deadly doings—but is it too late???

In a film like this one tone is all-important.  Any movie about a killer alligator is likely to be goofy from the get-go, yet it doesn’t pay to be too silly (as proven by the more recent LAKE PLACID).  Lewis Teague keeps the proceedings reasonably light, but with moments of seriousness and some delightfully over-the-top gator carnage.

John Sayles’ script contains all the elements that made him one of the top names in the business, including solid characterizations, a well-rounded narrative and quite a few imaginative touches (such as making the female lead the unwitting instigator of the madness).

Credit must also go to the excellent cast, rounded out with sharp supporting players like Henry Silva, playwright/actor Michael Gazzo, LOLITA’s Sue Lyon and the underrated Robin Riker.  And then there’s the great Robert Forster in the lead, whose gruff, world-weary presence—on display in films like MEDIUM COOL, JACKIE BROWN and many others—has never been better utilized.

Vital Statistics 

ALLIGATOR
BLC

Director: Lewis Teague
Producer: Brandon Chase
Screenplay: John Sayles
Cinematography: Joseph Mangine
Editing: Larry Bock, Ronald Medico
Cast: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael Gazzo, Jack Carter, Dean Jagger, Henry Silva, Sidney Lassick, Perry Lang, Sue Lyon, Bart Braverman, John Lisbon Wood, James Ingersoll, Robert Doyle, Patti Jerome, Angel Tompkins