Alligator (1980) [4K Collector's Edition]

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2022-02-26 15:52

Alligator (1980)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: February 22nd, 2022

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

There’s a temptation with a movie titled Alligator to simply assume it just needs to do what it says on the tin. And while there’s something to be said for that approach (lord knows a lot of our current genre fare tends to overthink things, especially with regards to trauma), but making this assumption in this case underestimates the cleverness that John Sayles and Lewis Teague brought to a movie about a giant alligator that surfaces from the sewers to terrorize Chicago. Sure, it definitely does this and then some, but it does so with an idiosyncratic sense of humor that twists this familiar premise into a singular experience by baring some satirical teeth. It doesn’t strain to do so, however, and that makes all the difference: Alligator remains light on its feet as it pokes fun at genre conventions without turning its nose up at them, all while acting as a metaphor for American political turmoil and class strife.

Usually, that last bit will inspire some eye-rolls since so many films bend over backwards to be “about something” and often look silly in doing so. Alligator is content to plant the seed of suggestion early on, when its prologue climaxes with an unhinged father flushing his daughter’s pet baby alligator down the toilet as the radio reports on the riots at the ‘68 Democratic national convention. You could choose to ignore this detail if you so please, but there’s a suggestion here that maybe the alligator isn’t the only thing being flushed away to fester in a sewer for a decade before resurfacing to wreak havoc. That’s more or less the plot of Alligator, of course, as Sayles (and co-writer Frank Ray Perilli) found the old “alligator in the sewer” urban legend to be the natural launching point of a horror movie. Again, you don’t really need much more from a movie with this title in addition to the titular beast wreaking some gory havoc.

But bless Sayles and Teague for daring to do a little bit more with it, starting with the choice to cast Robert Forster as David Madison, the beleaguered cop tasked with investigating a rash of mangled bodies that keep turning up in the city’s sewers. He comes equipped with the cop movie clichés: he’s a bit of a loner on account of being a department pariah since his partner died during an incident years earlier. Naturally that’s a trauma that still haunts him, not to mention the existential crisis he’s currently having over growing older, a panic that’s manifested in him being fussy about his thinning hair. Forster takes all of this in stride, sketching a portrait that almost feels like a parody of the more insecure, vulnerable male leads of the 70s.

However, Forster sharply stays on the right side of the line here, so Madison is a goodhearted, quirky wiseass who just needs something good to happen to him. Between his brusque interactions with the media and his awkward chemistry with the rest of the force, it’s obvious he’s had enough of this shit. He’s not so much a loose cannon as he is a dulled fuse: by the time nobody believes him about a giant alligator stalking the sewers, he’s more bemused than he is upset. And once he’s suspended from the force after a botched attempt to lure the creature out of hiding, he’s almost happy to oblige and let it be someone else’s problem. You can hardly blame him, at least if you’ve ever been a working class stiff who’s been more than content to let your “superiors” sort out a mess they could have avoided if they had just listened to you in the first place. When he’s pulled back into the fray to finally clean it all up, it’s not just a primal reclamation of his masculinity: it’s a win for the average Joe, whose victory here ultimately benefits the entire class structure, including (and most pointedly) the elite millionaire class that caused this problem in the first place.

Because class inequality is the other thing on Alligator’s mind, believe it or not. During his investigation, Madison discovers that pharmaceutical tycoon Slade (Dean Jagger) has sanctioned illegal growth experiments that produce scores of wasted, mutated carcasses that this alligator has fed on for years. Through maleficence and plain old negligence, he’s created a monster that begins its rampage terrorizing kids on a street. By the time the beast crashes Slade’s party, it feels like karmic retribution, a reptilian manifestation of the economic and political angst that festered in the sewers of the 1970s, now clawing to the surface to finally be reckoned with. The climax of Alligator almost feels like a wish fulfillment for the dawning decade: Slade and his cronies, the representatives of reckless economic and environmental policies, fall prey to the alligator in a rousing sequence before our hero returns to slay the beast. Compared to what actually happened in the 80s, it’s practically a fantasia in the way it insists that corruption will earn its just desserts (by becoming dessert, natch), transforming the title creature into a cautionary allegory: you can only flush your problems away for so long until they finally return to quite literally bite you in the ass.

But that’s only if you really want Alligator to function as a metaphor. The film itself doesn’t exactly insist on it and is more than willing to simply engage your lizard brain with a plethora of schlock and silliness, like Madison diffusing a situation involving a would-be mad bomber in the precinct or butting heads with the local tabloid reporter. He strikes up a relationship with the reptile expert (Robin Riker) who’s consulted to assist him (naturally, we learn that she was the owner of the alligator when he was a pet), a dalliance that sometimes has the tenor of a screwball comedy, especially when her overbearing mother enters the picture. At one point, Henry Silva wanders in as a shitkicking big game hunter who condescends to some local Black kids before enlisting them in his search for the creature, and it goes about as well as you might expect (squint hard enough and I suppose Alligator also functions as a metaphor for colonialism). Tying it all together is Teague, whose unfussy, workmanlike direction highlights the indelible performances, gnarly practical effects work, and the grimy, gritty texture of the production.

More than anything, Alligator is a real deal exploitation picture that’s bolstered by some effortlessly purposeful filmmaking that doesn’t stretch beyond its means. I have a feeling if this sort of thing were tried today, it’d strain for a certain, heavy-handed artfulness as it needlessly dwelled on its political subtext. It’d probably just all be text, whereas Alligator is content to leave you just a little bit to chew on as you revel in the black-hearted hilarity of watching a giant animal munch on a bunch of assholes.

The disc:

Alligator has long found itself on fans’ physical media wishlists, and for good reason. For one, it fucking rules; and for another, it’s been trapped on a fairly lackluster DVD for over a decade. While it did feature an interview with Sayles and a commentary track with Teague and Forster, its presentation left a lot to be desired. Apparently sourced from a PAL master, the transfer wasn’t even progressive scan, resulting in a smeary, digital look on modern displays. When I watched it for the first time in a while last summer, I was taken aback by just how rough it looked. At the time, I’m sure I was lamenting the fact that no upgrade seemed to be on the horizon on account of producer Brandon Chase’s tight grip on the rights.

Thankfully, it seems like Scream Factory finally made an offer he couldn’t pass up, and, perhaps in the interest of making the most of the opportunity, the studio opted to bump Alligator all the way up to the 4K UHD ranks. Friends, believe me when I say “upgrade” isn’t even the word to describe the improvement here: this is a stunning remaster that takes full advantage of the format. There’s a natural uptick in detail, of course, but the colors are also vividly reproduced, restoring Alligator’s lush visual palette in grand fashion. The 4K presentation is especially a boon when the film descends into the sewers, where the details remain precise and visible even when cloaked in shadows. Quite frankly, it’s a little disorienting that Alligator looks so terrific, and this improved presentation (it also sports a 2.0 DTS-MA mono track) is worth the price of admission alone.

Not content to leave it at that, though, Scream Factory also commissioned five new interviews with various members of the cast and crew, including the usual suspects like Riker, Sayles, and Teague, all of whom discuss their various contributions and provide anecdotes about the production. Riker especially has plenty to say about her co-star Forster (he was a good kisser!) but also shares some nice stories about the relaxed nature of Teague’s set. For his part, Teague provides one of the meatier interviews, tracing the roots of Alligator back to his initial meeting with Brandon Chase before discussing in detail how he came to casting Forster, whom he met while doing 2nd unit work on Avalanche. He also discusses how he fought to get the film a wider distribution since Chase was mostly invested in cashing in on the TV rights, and he also credits the film with saving his life because it cemented his decision to stop abusing drugs and alcohol. Sayles recounts his experiences via Zoom, as he details his and Teague’s decision to throw out the film’s original draft before commenting on some of his intentions and inspiration while writing the script (it turns out that, yes, all of the political subtext is very much intended). Scream Factory has also ported over Sayles’ interview from the original DVD, which runs about twice as long; there’s some crossover between the two interviews, particularly in regards to the creature feature films that inspired Alligator.

For a glimpse behind the scenes, Scream Factory turned to one likely source in makeup effects artist Robert Short, who provides a lot of practical, hands-on anecdotes about how his crew achieved the various gore gags, including the one involving a real gator in the film’s prologue. Less likely, however, is the presence of Bryan Cranston—yes, that Bryan Cranston, who found himself working as part of Short’s crew as a production assistant tasked with stuffing packets of blood into the alligator for its climactic demise. Cranston fondly describes how he was looking to just gain set experience after earning his SAG card before delivering various anecdotes about acquiring and mixing Karo syrup into the primordial, gory sludge that became the creature’s innards. He also shares a terrific story involving his lone experience with Forster on the set, which nicely dovetails into a recollection of their reunion on the set of Breaking Bad decades later.

It should come as no surprise that this is one of several fond memories among the cast and crew involving Forster, who is uniformly eulogized as a consummate professional and an even better human being. Maybe it’s a small comfort considering the world is going to hell right now, but it’s nice to know that such a revered celebrity was the terrific person you imagined him to be. I only wish Forster himself were around to chat a little bit more about Alligator, a film that he was always proud of, at least if his commentary with Teague (another port from the old DVD) is any indication.

Scream Factory has also included their usual batch of promo material: trailers, TV spots, and stills galleries, plus a Trailers from Hell segment featuring Karyn Kusama’s appreciation for the film. The Blu-ray disc also includes the film’s additional television scenes if you want to watch them separately. That’s one option because you can also watch the complete television cut (with inserts remastered from an interpositive) in its entirety on a separate disc, making this the definitive Alligator release we’ve been craving for years now. And if that weren’t enough, Scream has also released Alligator II: The Mutation, marking its official Region 1 disc debut. It’s always exciting when we can finally cross entries off of our wishlists, especially when a label does such a thorough job and makes the long wait worthwhile.

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