April 13, 2011

Alligator (1980)

"A baby alligator is flushed down a Chicago toilet and survives by eating discarded lab rats, injected with growth hormones. The small animal grows gigantic, escapes the city sewers, and goes on a rampage."

I first saw "Alligator" when it was introduced to an unsuspecting British public by Alex Cox, director of "Repo Man" (1984), in one of his far too short seasons of cult '80s films on BBC2's "Moviedrome". According to my Googling, this was actually in 1994 so, obviously, I was way behind the times with my knowledge of cult '80s American horror movies as I'd never even heard of it before. If it was ever shown theatrically in the UK then it certainly wasn't near me. Even my local Blockbuster didn't have a copy of it, and they had just about everything. The DVD version was only released in 2007 in America so there are probably still quite a few people who have never seen it.

The director of "Alligator", Lewis Teague, went on to do a couple of better known Stephen King adaptations, "Cujo" (1983) and "Cat's Eye" (1985), both of which I feel are hugely overrated by genre fans. I can barely make it through "Cujo" without wanting to slap Dee Wallace's character silly and "Cat's Eye" is a mixed bag which I only like on a personal level because it has cats in it.

There is a terrible sequel to "Alligator" called, imaginatively, "Alligator II: The Mutation" (1991) which coincidentally stars Dee Wallace who I've only just mentioned. Don't worry though, she isn't in "Alligator".

Having to rewatch "Alligator" again after all these years isn't really too much of a chore though. It may be little more than "Jaws on land" with a ridiculously large alligator instead of a shark but it isn't as camp as the trailer above makes it out to be. It isn't quite as serious as you might hope for either which is something that some people might appreciate more than others. I didn't notice any obvious parody of any other monster movies myself, but I suppose, given the subject matter, that it goes without saying.

"Alligator" isn't a bad film at all really but, thirty years on, it is getting dated. It's not embarrassingly dated apart from a few effects and some of the dialogue, but it still feels oddly cast and more like a TV disaster movie. I think that's more due to Robert Forster's presence than anything else though as most people would only associate him with a slew of '70s cop shows rather than his work in horror films.

Apart from the stupid premise, based on an urban myth, that if you flush your pet alligator down the toilet it will grow massive and eventually come back to get you, I still managed to find "Alligator" very entertaining. Of course a sick puppy like me has no time for all the contrived tense moments in the sewers but thoroughly relished people being eaten, especially the infamous kid in the swimming pool scene, not that you really see anything.

It's not often that kids get killed in horror movies as there appear to be some weird laws about what you can do with "minors" in a film. Well, obviously, all that has changed for the better with all the films about evil kids but, back in 1980, an innocent little kid getting eaten must have been more shocking. "Jaws" still did it first though.

All the gore, severed arms and legs, is quite fake looking now, but at least it's there. For the time, it was pretty damned good and the alligator itself isn't let down animatronically either. Some of the scenes involved a real alligator with scale models and if you look too closely you'll spot the flaws. My advice is to not look too closely and to concentrate on the good stuff.

"Alligator" is nicely paced apart from some minor lag in the middle where among other things a very stereotypically '70s celebrity big game hunter is introduced. Henry Silva plays Brock, the aforementioned hunter, with just enough arrogance to make you dislike his character instantly but not much else. If "Alligator" has a major flaw, it's this section of the film, which you can predict the outcome of a mile away and just want to be over. This is wrapped around a S.W.A.T. team driving the alligator out of the sewers into the city which is the least credible part of the whole thing anyway. As if people wouldn't notice a 30-40 feet long alligator trying to hide in the middle of Chicago.

Running jokes about Robert Forster's male pattern baldness abound and, if you look carefully at various wall posters and paintings in the background of some scenes, you will see that there are even more attempts at self-mockery concerning the subject of the film itself. If, like me, you have no sense of humour then you'll just be entertained by the attention to detail which is like something Joe Dante would do.

Anyway, as has been duly noted, "Alligator" borrows a lot from "Jaws" including various set pieces and even the background music. I don't think anybody was out to rip anyone else off here though as "Alligator" has its own fair share of original moments along the way too. It's about as similar as comparing two Westerns and saying that they are the same because they both have cowboys and indians in them. One could be "Rio Bravo" and the other could be "Carry on Cowboy", but that's as far as you could use the analogy to compare "Jaws" with "Alligator". "Alligator" isn't a comedy spoof as such, but you know that it isn't taking itself all that seriously either.

I really liked the first half-hour of "Alligator" and the action-packed end even though it was all way too predictable. I think the pacing was generally okay and even bits which seemed like padding added some little detail which tied things together. I'm glad that I rewatched "Alligator" again and can thoroughly recommend it. It's no more gory than "Jurassic Park" or "Jaws", but is still R-rated for no good reason at all (that I can think of) apart from a couple of minor swear words and some semi-nudity from Robin Riker.

If you can still find "Alligator" on DVD (I noticed that Amazon only has 7 left in stock) and you don't have any other man vs. alligator horror movies in your collection then you need to buy this. "Alligator" is everything that "Lake Placid" wanted to be but failed at, and you can be sure that with the success of films like "Piranha 3D" someone somewhere is already thinking about remaking it.

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