Directed by Lewis Teague
Released by Lionsgate
Some movies, no matter what the stigma surrounding them when they’re released, just manage to stand the test of time. Do you think anyone involved with Alligator> when it rolled out 27 years ago had any idea it’d still be popular today?
Don’t get me wrong, I seriously doubt there’s an underground fanbase for Alligator like there is for, say, The Burning or Monster Squad (which are also on DVD now … hazzah!) … but maybe there should be because damnit, Alligator is still a smart, funny and at times genuinely scary monster movie; a combo we just get way too rarely these days.
The stigma I mentioned has to do with a little movie called Jaws, perhaps you’ve heard of it? A mere five years old at the time of Alligator’s release, I’m sure the intention here was initially to make something that ripped off Jaws as much as possible. Luckily the end result is so much more than just a cheap knock off; it’s very much its own movie. Though it’s not as scary as the big shark movie, and does have a lot more implausible moments in it, I seriously doubt people viewed Alligator on its own merits when it came out in 1980, being so damn close to the phenomenon that was the first ever summer blockbuster.
Our story starts when a little girl, crazy about reptiles, convinces her parents that she’ll be able to take care of a pet alligator no matter how big it gets. Of course, when she gets it the thing is barely the size of her hand, so there’s the cute factor girls are so controlled by at seemingly any age. The very next day her father comes home angry for some indiscernible reason, grabs the gator and flushes him down the toilet, telling his young daughter that he found it dead, when she asks.
Twelve years later and body parts are starting to show up in the city’s sewer system and homicide detective David Madison (a pitch-perfect Robert Forester) is on the case. He heads down to the sewers with a patrolman, a guy who we at first think will just be a red shirt but actually turns out to be a fully-defined character, but doesn’t come back with him. The now-giant gator from the beginning attacks the two of them and the cop doesn’t make it out; indeed Madison watched helplessly as he dragged away by the beast
So now Madison is calling “alligator”, but no one really believes him until an obnoxious journalist turns up dead, his camera full of pictures of the beast what killed him for evidence. In comes the drop-dead gorgeous reptile expert Marissa Kendall (Riker) who is, of course, the same girl who lost her pet alligator at the beginning. She never makes the connection but we, the audience, do and that’s enough for an ironic smile or two.
Of course there is the natural attraction between the gruff copy and the beautiful but nerdy scientist and while normally such a thing would slow down a film, it’s paced in Alligator just right so that instead of making up running time, we’re actually learning about and caring more for the characters. A lot could be learned from such an approach.
The situation gets even more desperate when the alligator makes its way out of the sewers and onto open ground, wreaking havoc on the city and scaring the shit out of anyone who crosses its path, usually with fatal results. Of course the hero cop and the attractive herpetologist do end up saving the day, but even their road to victory isn’t exactly what one might expect.
I was really impressed with how well Alligator holds up, despite its age and relatively low budget for the time. The combination of a real alligator on miniatures and a sparingly used animatronic reptile made the actual beast itself very realistic, not like today’s effects when the CG is almost screaming at you when it’s on screen.
All right, so what about the DVD? Picture and sound are pretty damn good; Lionsgate remastered both for the release so it’s nice and crisp. That’s very helpful considering how much of Alligator takes place in the sewers. I remember being very frustrated with the old VHS copy I had of the movie in regards to how murky it god down there.
Feature-wise there’s a damn good commentary by director Teague and star Forester that really gives a feeling of how much fun it was to make the movie. An on-camera interview with the Alligator writer, John Sayles (The Howling, Clan of the Cave Bear) proves to be very informative and intelligent. Especially amusing is Sayles recounting of what the original script he was given was like, and why it’s always good for a screenwriter to write a film with a set start date because there’s far fewer chances of studio interference.
If you’re sick of Sci-Fi’s latest CG fest monster movie and just can’t stomach a man in a suit, Alligator is definitely a solid choice for an evening of nature going amok; it’s perfectly paced, never talks down to its audience or takes itself too seriously and does what so few giant animal movies ever bother to do; makes sense.
4 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5
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