Monday, February 9, 2009

Alligator (USA, 1980)

A low-budget gem from the Golden Age of Exploitation, Alligator is yet another "homage" to Jaws (1975) that, just like the original Piranha (1978/trailer) — which also owes its inspiration to Spielberg’s shark film — comes from the prolific and creative pen of John Sayles. Sayles, prior to becoming the respected filmmaker of serious little people films like Lianna (1983/trailer) Passion Fish (1992/trailer) and Lone Star (1996/trailer), was the scribe behind such popular grindhouse films as the previously mentioned Piranha, the enjoyable The Lady in Red (1979/trailer), the hilariously bad Battle Beyond the Stars (1980/trailer) and the classic The Howling (1981/trailer). For Alligator, he was assisted by the lesser skills of Frank Ray Perilli, whose own pedigree of fine Golden Age of Drive-In Trash includes The Doberman Gang (1972/trailer), Mansion of the Doomed (1976/trailer) and Zolton: Hound of Dracula (1978/trailer). Aided by Lewis Teague, a director with a staid and comfortable hand for low budget actioners that followed his early exploitation years with a long career of bad television before falling off the face of the earth, the final product delivered is an entertaining, witty and quick crowd-pleaser. The basic premise is taken from the classic urban legend of alligators living in the sewers of NYC (see Scopes for more on the original legend) and augmented it in dimension by having the gator mutate to a monstrous size due to a steady diet of illegally dumped lab animals pumped full of growth hormone.
Alligator begins with a short, wry interlude of a family watching a backwoods alligator show turns bloody when one gator chomps on a leg of a handler. Despite this short scene of carnage, young Marissa (Leslie Brown) convinces her parents to buy her a baby gator. A short time later, back in the big city, daddy flushes "Ramon" down the pot. Fast forward 12 years and we now meet Dt. David Madison (Robert Forster, looking good and able to laugh about his emerging male-pattern baldness, which he had done away with by the time Quentin Tarantino rejuvenated his unjustly dead career with Jackie Brown (1997/trailer)*). Not only are local pets disappearing with great regularity, but human body parts keep floating up in the local sewage treatment plant. Madison takes a tour of the sewers with a rookie with more balls than brains and becomes persona-non-grata when he comes up alone claiming that his partner has become alligator food — at least until the camera of the alligator’s next victim shows up, complete with close-ups the attacking alligatoridae. The hunt is on, but Ramon is a hard catch: instead of crawling into their hands, he breaks up through the mid-town sidewalk and, after chomping on a policeman, first disappears into what looks to be Westlake in MacArther Park (Los Angeles) and then takes refuge under the beach balls afloat in background pools. (Which leads up to one fab scene that totally disregards the mainstream Hollywood rule of not killing children.) Madison and his boss Chief Clark (Michael V. Gazzo) pull in the leading expert of the field Dr. Marisa Kendall — she obviously studied hard in the 12 years since her dad flushed Ramon — for assistance, but when Madison steps on a few toes too many while following up the growth-hormone angle, he gets pulled from the case and replaced by the great white hunter Col. Brock (played hilariously tongue-in-cheek by the legendary Henry Silva). Brock doesn't last long, so Madison and Marisa decide to take things in their own hands — but not before, in an act of sardonic poetic justice, Ramon crashes the garden wedding party of the industrialist behind the hormone-injected dogs and munches on everyone that deserves to be munched on...
In the end the plot of Alligator, as a whole, offers nothing new and is extremely predictable, but the filmmakers themselves are fully aware of this and thus purposely inject the well-worn proceedings with enough verve and wit to make the old chestnuts both entertaining and enjoyable. Likewise, although the special effects were hardly even top of the line when the film was made, they do have something endearing about them.
Oddly enough, it took 11 years before a sequel was regurgitated in 1991. Everything that can be praised in the first film is not to be found in Alligator II: The Mutation, a film that is as unmemorable as Alligator is not.

*Isn’t it about time Tarantino does the same with Bradford Dillman?

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