Review by Stephen Snart
Posted on 03 October 2008
Source Lightning Video VHS
Categories 31 Days of Horror V
Alligator brings us back to a time when the creature at the center of a monster movie had a definitive origin that was explicitly established from the get-go. Unlike recent creature features Cloverfield and The Mist, in which the monster or set of monsters seemingly materialize out of thin air and the nature of their existence is shrouded in ambiguity throughout, Alligator offers the audience a scientific explanation for its calamity in the first fifteen minutes. Theorists often state that the horror film is a reflection of contemporary real-world anxieties. If so, Alligator represents a fear of the misuse of science and finds its savior in the form of a dogged policeman. Such an anxiety and resolution may seem a bit outdated even by the end of the 1970s, but consider it in contrast to the anxieties expressed in current horror and it seems even more antiquated. Nowadays, films like Cloverfield and The Mist are founded on the fear of the unknown and the unexplainable—and to an extent, governmental suppression of the truth. But social relevance notwithstanding, the real question is: how do these different approaches impact the level of fear created by the respective films? Does giving the monster a semi-logical explanation for its mutation make Alligator feel more believable and thus scarier? Not really because horror thrives on the terror of the unknown. Alligator lacks suspense because it informs the audience of exactly how the creature got to be where it is and why it attacks: simply put, it’s hungry. For a horror film, this is like delivering the punch-line before the joke, making the buildup limp and assuaging any terror. Also, the alligator looks really fake when it’s moving.
So, genetic mutation is the name of the game here and a group of lab workers experimenting on stray dogs are the subjects to blame. Their experimentations are designed to make dogs multiply in size, or something of that nature. I wasn’t able to quite understand their motivations but it did involve a wealthy benefactor. Reckless research practices have led to the disposal of chemical waste into the city sewers. Unbeknownst to them, an alligator has been dwelling in the sewer for twelve years and slowly mutating into an incredible size. How did an alligator come to reside in a city sewer? Why, it was flushed down a toilet of course. In the film’s prologue, we see a perverse little girl beg her mother to buy a baby alligator from a travelling fair. The next day the father finds the alligator at home and brusquely (although quite sensibly) flushes it down the toilet. Spiraling out of their lives and into a contaminated sewer system, the alligator eventually acquires an insatiable appetite as a byproduct of its mutation and preys on a hapless sanitation worker and a devious dog catcher. When limbs start surfacing, the police immediately assume the deaths to be the work of a human serial killer. Enter Robert Forster as Detective David Madison, the policeman assigned to investigate the series of grisly deaths. After some investigation he concludes there must be some sort of creature living in the sewers. The rest of the staff is loath to believe him but they come around when the alligator rises from its dwelling and runs amok in the city streets! (The VHS cover purports to be set in Chicago but the streets are filmed with the anonymity of a Hollywood back lot.)
The screenplay comes courtesy of independent auteur John Sayles. Sayles frequently serves as writer/director/editor/producer on his own films but famously takes on hired-hand screenwriting jobs on creature features and studio rewrites as a means of funding his passion projects. Despite signing his name onto so many B-movies, he’s managed to avoid its damning association based on the power of his personal projects and their concerns with race and social activism. If pressed, one might even be able to find traces of auteurist tendencies in his schlock resume: like Piranha before it, Alligator is heavily influenced by Jaws and with Mimic (for which he did a rewrite), he returns to the world of underground creatures; although such similarities are likely evidence of his efficiency rather than his thematic interests. His work here offers some snappy dialogue (even if the performers don’t quite possess the pep for it) and includes a nice character quirk with Forster’s concern about male pattern baldness (and done almost a decade before John McClane and his receding hairline went darting around Nakatomi Plaza).
Alligator works moderately well when aping the Jaws formula of mostly keeping the creature off-screen and only being glimpsed in fragmented shots. The desire to emulate Jaws’ signature rhythmic thumping also saves the film from a bygone synthesizer-heavy score. The kills are moderately effective when the alligator is confined to the sewers (probably because they seem to be lit with little more than a flashlight) and the film’s trademark shot of an extreme close-up of the alligator’s inner eyelid peeling back is creepy no matter how many times they return to it.
There are certainly some juvenile delights to be found in Alligator: an unattributed POV shot of a squirming victim succeeded by a shot of a blatant prosthetic leg washing ashore, a startlingly grim demise in a residential swimming pool and the hilariously gruff, Lawrence Tierney-esque voice of Michael V. Gazzo as the police chief. But nothing matches the film’s pièce de résistance at the 45-minute mark: a knee-slapping, reputation-defining shot of the alligator bursting through a manhole—achieved with a miniature backdrop, a flurry of Styrofoam and one very jerkily-controlled puppet.
John Sayles (screenplay)
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