Saturday, February 25, 2017

Underrated Horror Gems--"Alligator"

     "Alligator" was a movie released in 1980.  It received mixed reviews from critics, and did okay, but not great at the box office (it reportedly made about 6.5 million dollars versus a 1.5 million dollar budget).  I think it's safe to say it's considered a cult film.  (There was a sequel, in 1991, but this one was very poorly regarded.)  Obviously, I enjoy it, and want to discuss it further.
     I'll start with a brief synopsis.  Human body parts are being discovered in the sewage treatment plant in an unnamed Missouri city.  Detective David Madison investigates, and finds a possible link to the local Slade Pharmaceutical company.  Visits to the sewer itself cause further deaths, and proof that the culprit is indeed a giant alligator.  Efforts to corner and kill it result in it rampaging throughout the city.  A noted big game hunter is brought in to combat the beast.  A herpetologist who specializes in snakes and alligators, Dr. Marisa Kendall, also assists Madison.  Can anyone stop the 30 foot long, ravenous monster?
     (SPOILERS AHEAD UNTIL NOTED)  Now I'll include a more detailed, spoiler-rich recap.  The film opens in Florida, at a gator farm.  A young girl buys a pet baby alligator, and brings it home to Missouri.  Her father, though, quickly flies in a rage and flushes it down the toilet.  We then cut to 12 years later, to 1980.  A pet store owner, Gutchel, is grabbing stray dogs and cats (and even some that are missing, owned pets) off the streets and selling them to Slade Pharmaceutical.  There Dr. Hill is conducting illegal, secret experiments on these animals using synthetic hormones, some of which result in extreme growth and raised appetite.  Gutchel is killed by the giant gator in the sewer, while he's dumping some of the illegal experiment test animals' corpses.  Detective Madison's investigation leads him to question the personnel at Slade, and to check out the sewer.  Unfortunately, during this sewer visit Madison watches in horror as a young policeman, Kelly, is fatally attached by the alligator.  Madison is traumatized, even more so because he still harbors guilt about a partner killed with Madison's gun five years before.  Madison and his boss, Chief Clark, meet herpetologist Dr. Marisa Kendall, who's skeptical about his claims.  However, a nasty reporter, Kemp, is slain by the alligator while visiting the sewer, and the film from his recovered camera proves the existence of an immense alligator.  Dozens of well armed police and a SWAT team converge in the sewer, hoping to drive the animal toward an ambush point.  Instead, though, the gator bursts out through the street, attacks a policeman, and then disappears.  The city hires Colonel Brock, a famous big game hunter, and Madison is told to stay out of his way.  Kendall and Madison poke around more at Slade Pharmaceutical, and learn more about their experiments.  In retaliation, the well-connected Slade has Madison fired.  The gator eats a little kid in a swimming pool, and then manages to kill Brock in a confrontation in an alley.  Some police in speedboats engage the alligator in a river, but the end result is a crashed boat, at least one dead policeman, and little to no damage to the animal.  The gator ends up at Slade's mansion while he's hosting an outdoor pre-wedding party for Dr. Hill and Slade's daughter.  The gator kills several people, including the corrupt mayor and Slade (possibly Dr. Hill, too--I couldn't tell).  Madison and Dr. Kendall give chase, and realize the beast will return to its home area in the sewer.  Madison sets a trap using a stolen timer and dynamite.  He narrowly escapes the blast zone via a manhole, as the behemoth is blown to pieces.  But during the last scene we see another baby gator entering the sewer from a toilet flush.
     "Alligator" is part of the "nature run amok" subgenre.  And like many movies since 1975, it's clearly heavily influenced by the blockbuster "Jaws."  There are many similarities between the two.  Both are about a real, dangerous animal that has attained a huge size (although "Alligator's" titular beast is much more exaggerated and unrealistic than the shark in "Jaws").  In both, a cop is leading the investigation, and he's initially not believed.  The attacker is seen only briefly, and quickly, for the first half or so of the movies.  Both films' mayors are ineffectual, interfering, and downright corrupt (even more so in the "Jaws" novel).  The lead character is fired for "pushing too far," in both movies (well, Sheriff Brody wasn't fired until "Jaws 2," but you get what I mean).  "Jaws's" Quint and "Alligator's" Colonel Brock are two peas in a pod--both are experienced hunters, but are also arrogant and apparently saddled with serious drinking problems.  The endings of both films are similar, with the monster being blown up.
     So why do I like this ripoff of a movie so much?  Probably because it's competently done.  Director Lewis Teague does a good job of moving the story along at a good pace, and providing some very tense and disturbing moments.  The cast is good for a low budget horror flick.  Robert Forster is very good as Detective Madison--very flawed, but likable (more on this character later).  His co-star, Robin Riker is similarly appealing as the somewhat nerdy Dr. Kendall, and their romance seems natural, and not "tacked on" as is so often in movies of this type.  Michael Gazzo is appropriately blustery as Chief Clark, and Dean Jagger is a believable scumbag pharmaceutical company owner, kind of an old, bald, version of Martin Shkreli.  Henry Silva's Col. Brock is fun, too.  The smaller roles are also done well, I thought, especially given the movie's budget.  The running joke about Madison's receding hairline (which Robert Forster actually added) is an amusing, humanizing touch to his character.
     In a movie like this, one of the major issues is, how are the special effects?  Clearly, this was long before CGI, so how do the effects hold up?  Surprisingly well.  As I mentioned, the movie wisely uses the "less is more" approach for much of the movie, showing only quick glimpses of the gator, and even some from its point of view.  Basically, four methods were used.  There was a full size, complete animatronic alligator body, which required two strong guys to operate, and it didn't work that well.  The second method was an animatronic alligator head mounted on wheels.  The third was a disembodied tail on a rig, for the tail swatting scenes.  And lastly, they used real, young gators walking around on miniature sets as well.  There are a few dodgy moments (most notably, when the mayor is being attacked the gator head looks pretty fake), but overall the alligator seems real. I'm sure my bias against much of modern CGI is already well known, but suffice it to say, I think the primitive, practical effects of "Alligator" were very effective, and even superior to some modern CGI.
     Moving to the movie's themes, I think the most obvious one is the controversy about laboratory testing on animals.  And the scientist side doesn't come off very well.  Dr. Hill is very unethical, as he buys stolen animals, cruelly cut their larynxes so they can't make much noise, conducts illegal experiments, hidden from the Humane Society, and then just has Gutchel dispose of the bodies, knowing their dumping isn't legit.  Similarly, his boss, Slade, is ridiculously evil--it's not hard to imagine that he'll do anything to get his drugs approved by the FDA, and to make the most profit he can.  Corruption seems to be his middle name, as he has the mayor, and presumably other politicians, in his back pocket.
     On a similar note, there's the old theme about humans damaging their environment, and how nature responds, or even takes revenge.  The alligator is so giant, and hungry, because it's been eating the synthetic hormones made by Slade in the animal testing corpses that Gutchel keeps dumping in its home.  His careless body disposal is clearly affecting the environment.  In reality, agricultural chemical runoff, and improperly disposed medicines have obviously negatively impacted the environment.  (One example is "The Pill" has apparently taken a  huge toll on various species of fish.)  That's one of the fun, satisfying parts of the film, when the gator kills the real villain, Slade, and the mayor, and maybe Dr. Hill.  And how the alligator made it into the sewer in the first place is yet another ecological point, one based, again, in reality.  It's crazy to think that it used to be legal, and somewhat common, in the U.S. to sell baby alligators as pets to the general public, even through the mail.  (Now most states prohibit this, or at least severely limit this practice, but black market internet sales are still depressingly prevalent.)  How could this possibly end well?  Either the poor gator would quickly die when small, or it would grow up enough to be dangerous--what ordinary household could take care of an 8-14 foot alligator, that can potentially live for 80 years?!  Alligators were once seriously endangered in the U.S., and only recovered once humans stopped over-hunting them, and destroying their home ranges, etc.
     The character of David Madison is a very different, and interesting take on the typical male film hero, too.  Obviously most movie cops are tough and decisive--confident, good with their fists and guns.  If anything, they might be too aggressive, and reigned in by bureaucratic red tape when they're trying to solve crimes "their way."  Madison seems to be the antithesis of this.  He's not incompetent--he's a detective, and seems reasonably well respected at work.  But, he's clearly suffering from extreme guilt, PTSD possibly, from losing his partner five years before.  We learn that a crook tricked him by holding a roll of pennies to his head--Madison thought it was a gun, and relinquished his own firearm.  The crook then shot his partner dead.  Madison reveals that he "just froze" at the most important moment of the encounter.  When Kelly is grabbed by the gator, and killed, Madison also reacts in a decidedly non-action hero sort of way.  He burst out of the manhole, yelling about an alligator, and then blacks out, waking up later in a hospital bed.  Screenwriter Sayles stated he intended this idea, and it's clear to see.  The alligator is a metaphor for Madison's personal demons.  He needs to find his courage, and actually conquer his fears.  Even his embarrassment about his receding hairline seems odd for a "hero cop"--would Dirty Harry be embarrassed about his appearance?  But, in this case, these details, to my mind, make Madison a more realistic, and relateable character.  He's neurotic, he experiences guilt, and doubt--he's one of us.
    A few other minor moments struck me as well.  Col. Brock is a bit casually racist, as he refers to his hired African American helpers as "native bearers," and the leader of them as a "local chieftain."  He's also creepily hitting on every women he meets, too, so a class act across the board.  I doubt many viewers mourn his character's passing.  There's also the part when the police photographer hands Madison and Clark the photos taken by Kemp, showing the giant alligator attacking him.  He says, "Imagine clicking away with your camera while that's coming at you."  Kind of an in-joke, something that probably every viewer has said while watching a typical "found footage" horror movie.  Kemp, of course, is shown to be nasty and sleazy in general, as he harps on Madison losing hie former partner, in an incident that was tragic, but an understandable mistake.  He also badgers nurses to reveal personal details about Madison's condition, and manipulates the objects in the sewer to make a better picture.  In the media vs. police confrontation that often takes place, in movies and in real life, this movie's most prominent Fourth Estater is frankly detestable.  We also don't feel very sorry when he's eaten by the alligator.
     (END SPOILERS--SAFE FOR EVERYONE)  Now I'll address another obvious question that "Alligator" watchers probably have.  Sure, a 30 foot long specimen is fiction, but have alligators been found living in sewers?  It's an old story, as rumors about this date back to at least the late 1920's/early 1930's.  The story got a boost from Robert Daley's 1959 book, "The World Beneath the City," about the New York City underground.  In it, he quotes a former New York City Commissioner of Sewers, Teddy May, as confirming that there were indeed alligators, usually albino, found in the Big Apple's core.  Well, May was probably telling a jokey story, or was mistaken.  As Dr. Kendall mentions in the movie, alligators can't live in sewers, especially in Northern climates like New York.  They're too polluted for one.  Also, the lack of sunlight would result in the animals' bones not hardening properly.  And then there's the cold.  NYC's winters would be way too much for a tropical animal--among other things, they can't digest food in the cold temperatures.  The urban myth is also likely based on a single incident from 1935.  Some kids found an 8 foot alligator in an East Harlem sewer.  It's believed to have swam up the Harlem River after falling off a steamship.  Whatever the source, it clearly wasn't in the sewer long, and didn't grow up there.  Thomas Pynchon's reference to the "sewer gators"story in his 1963 novel "V" may have further propagated the myth.  Periodically alligators have been found in sewers in Southern U.S. cities, but again, obviously this was temporary--these animals would always vastly prefer their natural environment for a home.
     As I mentioned, this little independent monster flick ended up with a surprisingly talented cast and crew.  Star Robert Forster has had a long movie career.  Highlights include "Medium Cool" (1969), "The Black Hole" (1979), "The Delta Force" (1986), "Jackie Brown" (1997), (for which he was Oscar-nominated), "Mulholland Drive" (2001), and "The Descendants" (2011).  Dr. Marisa Kendall portrayer Robin Riker has kept busy, mostly on television--"Get a Life" (1990-2), "The Bold and the Beautiful" (2008-10), and guest roles on "NCIS," "Cold Case," and "Bones."  Michael Gazzo (Chief Clark) was in "On the Waterfront" (1954), "Black Sunday" (1974), "Sudden Impact" (1983), and "Last Action Hero" (1993) before his death in 1995.  He's best known for being a playwright and for appearing in an Oscar-nominated role as Frank Pentangeli in "The Godfather II" (1974).  Dean Jagger (Slade) also had a long and distinguished career before his death in 1991.  Among others, he was in "Revolt of the Zombies" (1936), "Twelve O'clock High" (1949) (for which he won an Academy Award), "The Robe" (1953), "Vanishing Point" (1971) and "Game of Death" (1978).  Luke Gutchel portrayer Sydney Lassick is most known for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "History of the World Part 1" (1981), and "Shakes the Clown" (1992).  Slimy Colonel Brock was played by Henry Silva, best known for "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (1979), "Chained Heat" (1983) and "Ocean's Eleven" (2001).  "Lolita" (1962) star Sue Lyon had a brief role in "Alligator" as a television news reporter.  Stuntman/actor Kane Hodder, best known for playing killer Jason Voorhees several times in the "Friday the 13th" movie series, got an early role playing the alligator, stuffed into the full size animatronic body.  Finally, actor Bryan Cranston, best known for being Walter White in the television series "Breaking Bad," as well as appearing several times on "Seinfeld," and in movies such as "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006), "Argo" (2012), and "Godzilla" (2014) had a very early, tiny part on the "Alligator" production crew.  As he put it in his book, he was the special effect's assistant's assistant's assistant, in charge of the alligator's guts.  Director Lewis Teague went on to helm movies like "Cujo" (1983), "Cat's Eye" (1985), and "Navy Seals" (1990).  Writer John Sayles worked on the screenplays for "Piranha" (1979), "The Howling" (1981), and "Apollo 13" (1996), as well as writing and directing "Return of the Secaucus Seven" (1980), "Matewan" (1987), "Passion Fish" (1992) (nominated for an Oscar), "Lone Star" (1996) (also Oscar-nominated), and "Go for Sisters" (2013).  Additionally, while set in the American Midwest, the movie was filmed in Southern California, mostly around Los Angeles and Pasadena.  Many of the sewer scenes were shot in the Los Angeles River, which has been used in many films, including "Them" (1954), "It's Alive" (1974), "Chinatown" (1974), the racing scene from "Grease" (1978), the great motorcycle/truck chase scene from "Terminator 2" (1991), and television's "Fear the Walking Dead."
     Therefore, in closing, "Alligator" was a fun, intense movie, and I think it still holds up.  Fans of nature run amok movies should give it a look.

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