Written by: John Sayles & Frank Perilli
Directed by: Lewis Teague
Starring: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, and Michael V. Gazzo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
It lives 50 feet beneath the city. It's 36 feet long. It weighs 2,000 pounds.
...And it's about to break out!
...And it's about to break out!
Horror movies often take their cues from urban legends (or derivations thereof), whether itís a campfire tale given blood-soaked life or a childhood game that becomes all too real when it brandishes a hook and starts gutting people. Thereís something evocative about these tales that continues to draw us to them in whatever form they takeóeven the dumb story involving alligators invading the sewers of major cities has had enough legs to persist for decades now. At one point, it was such an enduring legend that someone decided to make a movie about it. They even hired John Sayles to write it and everything. Truly, we were a blessed people in 1980 when Alligator was released, the latest in a very deep pool of Jaws imitators but one that gnawed and gnashed its way to the surface on the back of some sharp filmmaking.
For Sayles, this was already old hat, having already written Piranha, a spoof where disembodied entrails came laced with black humor. A similar cheekiness guides Alligator, particularly its ludicrous premise, which opens with a prologue set in the shadow of the Chicago riots in 1968. After young Marisa brings a pet baby alligator back from a family vacation, her drunken louse of a father decides to give it a ďburial at seaĒ by flushing it down a toilet. Twelve years later, a rash of mysterious slayings involving chewed up body parts befuddles David Madison (Robert Forster), a police detective haunted by the death of an old partner. When he encounters the now fully-grown and mutated alligator down in the sewers, everyone is skeptical, including Marisa, who has also grown up (but not mutated) to become a scientist specializing in (yes) reptiles.
Whatís clever is that the scriptís tongue doesnít jab right through its cheek; rather, it allows audiences to take stock of the absurdity on its own without shoving it into their faces. You just know a lesser script (or, god help us, a modern, Syfy era take) would spiral into a broad farce with Marisa confronting her childhood pet while the movie practically invited its viewers to get a load of this shit. Alligator isnít worried about any of that. Considering how ridiculous it is, itís played surprisingly straight with shades of playfulness strewn throughout. You canít fuck around too much when thereís a 40-foot alligator roaming the streets of Chicago, interrupting kidsí parties, and crashing weddings.
But thatís actually getting ahead of ourselves. Obviously, Alligator reserves plenty of time for some glorious, gut-munching carnage, but itís clear that Sayles, co-writer Frank Ray Perilli, and director Lewis Teague have crafted this from the classical mold that withholds the juicy bits in order to build intrigue and suspense. The early-going is crossbred with a grimy, sweaty cop movie aesthetic that almost allows it to play out like a procedural, only the audience knows thereís a giant reptile and not the mad slasher police expect to find. Bits and pieces are doled out quite literally, as severed arms and legs (some wearing, yes, alligator boots) are fished out of the sewers, while brief glimpses of the gatorís eyes and teeth foreshadow its eventual emergence.
Coincidentally, Alligator does sometimes feel a bit like a slasher. Obviously, the same gore-laden principles steer it, but the gritty, street-level aesthetic also puts it on a similar wavelength as Maniac or The New York Ripper. Characters prowl dank, dark sewers in search of an unseen menace whose presence is mostly revealed via POV shots. It often introduces characters only to quickly dispatch them, though it should be noted that it has a knack for crafting them in such a way that they court death out of sheer hubris. Many slashers have that one character whose arrogance or annoyingness puts them on a crash course with a chainsaw; Alligator has several, including a pushy reporter and a poacher who fancies himself invincible. Watching our alligator prove him wrong is delightful, especially after he reveals himself to also be a racist prick.
Faring better is Forster, whose performance skirts around expectations; far from a high-strung cop, heís surprisingly unruffled despite his gravelly voiced captain constantly hounding him (not to mention the journalist creep who keeps bringing up the incident involving his partner). Besides finding this gator, his chief concern is the male pattern baldness haunting his scalp, and Forster infuses him with an almost childlike streak of insecurity. Heís such a sweet lugóitís easy to see how this quality appealed to Tarantino years later when he cast him in Jackie Brown. His romance with Marisa is as inevitable as it is absurd, but they make for a worthwhile couple to watch sleuth their way through the proceedings, which has them uncovering evidence that illegal animal testing and toxins have contributed to the alligatorís abnormal size.
Considering the local chemical magnate responsible for all the toxic waste (Dean Jagger) is a prominent character here, itís hardly surprising that the high society wedding put on for his daughter is the alligatorís climactic target. It comes after an incredible rampage, one that sees the beast explode forth from the sewers and decide everyone (and I do mean everyone, small children included) is fair game. The creature effect itself is a magnificent testament to the power of practical effects: despite its unreal size, itís a completely believable monster and the accompanying gore even more so thanks to some clever editing. Alligator may seem like a goof, but its bite is completely serious and places it among some gnarly company as one of the eraís most killer splatter flicks.
In the tradition of classic monster movies, it also leaves the audience with something to chew on: surely, the mention of the Chicago race riots as the gator is discarded is hardly a coincidence. As it swirls down the bowl, the implication is quite clear: so, too, is America, a country unwilling to confront its problems but is content instead to flush them away and let them fester beneath the surface for a decade until they canít be ignored. After basting in a toxic miasma, they resurface, ready to bite us right in the ass for allowing political corruption, commercialization, and corporatism to run amok. Perhaps Alligator was a vision of the 80s that never quite came to pass. Like any alluring urban legend, it continues to endure, though, if only because it's really cool to see this particular tale come to life and rip people apart.
An opening scene featuring a group of gawking, horrified spectators at a gator-wrestling show might as well double as a snapshot for Alligator's audience: in the end, we're all here in the hopes that the gator will win, if only for a little while.
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