Friday, 5 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'Alligator'

Okay, let's see if I can pull this off again. Thought I’d start the month with something that isn’t completely terrible and/or an unofficial Italian sequel. 

Spoilers Ahoy!

You can thank Jaws for this. After Spielberg’s original summer blockbuster cannonballed its way into cinemas, there was a sudden surge in ‘nature run amok’ flicks during the late 70s. Armed with a savvy screenplay by John Sayles (Piranha, The Howling), director Lewis Teague (Cujo) made his own contribution in 1980: Alligator.

On a family outing to Florida, a young girl purchases a baby alligator which she names Ramón. It should have been the start of a beautiful relationship, but after the little nuisance poops in their house, the girl’s father throws a tantrum and flushes her pet down the toilet.

Twelve years later, human body parts start showing up in the city’s sewage drainage tanks. Investigating the grisly discoveries is Officer David Madison (Robert Forster), a homicide cop stricken with post-dead partner guilt and locked in an eternal struggle against permanent 5 o’clock shadow and male pattern baldness.  

It’s not long before Madison makes a startling discovery. Against all odds, Ramón has survived and grown into a 36 foot long monster with an insatiable appetite. As the death toll rises, an extensive search party is dispatched into the sewers, but this only exacerbates the problem when Ramón is finally forced to break out onto the streets above.

Alligators? In the sewers?

Best known as a character actor, Forster absolutely nails his leading role as Madison: a cop who may not be old enough to have a mid-life crisis, but that thinning hairline suggests he’s definitely getting there. It’s this amusing aspect of everyday mortality coupled with Forster’s natural aura of Han Solo charm that sets Madison apart from all the other Roy Scheider clones. But he has tragic qualities which lie just below that outward swagger; as he feels responsible for the murder of his first partner (who I shall assume was black and only five days away from retirement). This guilt doesn’t consume his character, but it helps round out a protagonist far richer than this particular genre often deserves.

On the flipside, no borderline pastiche of Jaws would be complete without the addition of a villainous human element. ‘Tis a tradition that has survived since Amity Island’s stubborn Mayor kept Chief Brody from closing those beaches, all the way up to Eric Roberts’ deluded scientist in Sharktopus. 

Of course, nothing compares to the pure evil of Alligator’s bad guys. For years, Slade Pharmaceuticals have been abducting and experimenting on, wait for it... puppies. These unsuspecting animals have been yanked off the street and subjected to gruesome hormonal-based research before being dumped in the sewer; and feeding on these genetically engineered dog corpses is exactly what’s caused Ramón to reach such an unprecedented size. 

Because of these unsavoury villains and the aforementioned dead partner incident, Alligator may be as much a play on typical cop movie conventions as on its contextual killer animal feature boom. There’s even a scene where Madison is ordered to hand in his badge and gun after getting too close to the truth. It’s impossible not to love this stuff.

The addition of a developing romance between Madison and the city’s leading authority on reptiles, Marissa Kendall (Robin Riker), who – get this – just happens to be the same girl who bought Ramón over a decade ago, injects the film with another heartfelt layer, though were it not for the enormously fun chemistry between Forster and Riker, their liaison may well have bogged down the tight script.

But if there wasn’t a romance, then we’d have never seen Forster’s effortless ability to dazzle women via the simple act of tossing his keys into the air in one fluid and debatably pre-planned motion. Observe:

The Robert Forster Key Catch

STEP 1 – Begin your sentence (e.g. “I’m gonna find that alligator and -”).
STEP 2 – Halfway through, toss your keys above you in an arching trajectory.
STEP 3 – Clap your hands. This part is crucial.
STEP 4 – Nonchalantly catch the falling keys behind you.
STEP 5 – Finish your sentence (e.g. “- I’m gonna kick his ass.”).

There. Pull it off and walk away feeling awesome.

Engaging as all that is, I’m here because I was drawn in by the title and that terrifying poster art. Ramón is a beautiful example of what old-school practical effects could achieve. Everyone loves Bruce the shark, yeah, but when that rubber head emerges from the water, it’s hard not to think: ... Ah. Save for one or two amusing shots, the mechanical alligator is a believably fearsome sight; and for those occasions when a real sense of scale was required, a live alligator was filmed moving through miniature sets. It’s nice to discover that, for a film over three decades old, Alligator’s frequent displays of movie magic still hold up.  

For the more easily entertained buffoons like myself who think Road House is better than Citizen Kane, Sayles and Teague serve up a hefty body count that’s evenly spread out over the film’s brisk 90-ish minute running time. There’s never a dull moment; and while many gory highlights await (like a cop who’s pulled from the water with both legs gnawed off at the knees), certain key attack sequences stick out for extra special reasons.

Like Kemp, the obligatory douche-nozzle reporter! For the first act, this guy’s a constant monkey on Madison’s back. He’s the one who brings the tragic death of Madison’s old partner to our attention; and when Madison loses a rookie cop he was searching the sewers with to Ramón’s jaws, Kemp’s quick to highlight the officer’s awful luck with partners. So the moment he goes down into the sewers to do a bit of poking around, we’re primed for his imminent demise.

Sure enough, a hungry Ramón shows up for dinner; and in a delicious moment of violent irony, Kemp uses his last ounce of life to photograph it eating him. He may have been a total asshat in life, but at least he went out hardcore.

Rawr! Yes! You're an animal!

Following Jaws, there was this unwritten rule that at least one child must suffer in your angry animal genre piece. Piranha quickly upped its game by offing several summer camp kids, while in Grizzly, a toddler was mauled by the titular bear; and one boy was even dragged to a watery grave in Tentacles. Enter Alligator.

Picture it: you’re six years old and enjoying a friend’s pirate-themed birthday party. All in all, a good time. Then, a couple of older kids decide to mess with you. You’re shoddily blindfolded and led out of the house. Turns out Birthday Boy’s mum has a pool, which is seen as an opportunity to take this pirate charade to the next level. Next thing you know, you’re forced to “walk the plank”. You think they’re just kidding around and won’t push you off the diving board... except they do. But before you stumble off the edge, you catch a glimpse of the hungry behemoth lying in wait below the water.  

So the two perpetrators of indirect juvenile manslaughter (if that’s even a thing) can only watch as blood profusely mixes with chlorine. Honestly, in a film otherwise packed with totally agreeable displays of carnage, what happens here could only be described as... really mean. Much as I enjoy Alligator, this scene plays out merely for shock value. Still, you’ll get over it, though the jarring cut back to Madison and Kendall enjoying a pleasant evening together makes for a tonal shift that’s hard to digest.  

Surprisingly, Ramón isn’t the most reptilian thing here. Sounds crazy, I know, but that award goes to Henry Silva, whose big game hunter is enlisted to help manage the now city-wide hunt. As a man who resembles, erm, how do I put this... ‘Bizarro Chevy Chase’, Silva was born to play slimeballs. He cements this early on by trying to seduce the female reporter who’s interviewing him by imitating the mating call of an alligator. I didn’t need to see that. She certainly didn’t. Nobody did.

This is exactly why the Robert Forster Key Catch was invented.

Just how effective his womanising skills proved remain unrevealed to this day, however I must question his abilities as a big game hunter. True, a city most probably isn’t familiar hunting ground to him, but surely he could have organised a better plan than “hire three local delinquents for minimum wage and have them follow me around at night”. Still, the afro-topped layabouts lead Brock to an alley where strange noises have been heard. Take a wild guess what happens once he’s left the safety of the street.

What’s funny is how Ramón manages to lure Brock in (by roaring while projecting a giant Killer Klowns From Outer Space style shadow on the alley wall) before SURPRISE attacking him from under a heap of garbage. Oh, but he doesn’t just get eaten. He gets swallowed whole! The last we see of Brock, he’s being dragged down Ramón’s gullet while the alligator’s upper jaw clamps down on him with crushing force (not unlike what happened to the British guy from Jaws 3). Fun fact: Silva has been killed by a mutant alligator, Chuck Norris, and Steven Seagal. Poor guy can’t catch a break.

By this point, we’re getting to the climax. The city’s river patrol cops have driven Ramón onto dry land (at the cost of one exploding speedboat and their whole supply of grenades, oi vey), whereupon the beast happens across a snooty outdoors wedding party. But this isn’t just any wedding. The bride in question is the daughter of Slade himself – head of Puppy Killers ‘R’ Us; and she’s just married the company’s head scientist. Even better, the corrupt mayor who ordered Madison’s unemployment is there too. To date, what follows is my all-time favourite depiction of poetic justice. I’ll try and detail the chaos as best I can.

Ramón first goes for an inquisitive poodle, but then makes a beeline for the waitress who’s just tripped over some shrubbery. As she’s being munched on, four or five panicked party guests slam into the bride – knocking her into a nearby pool (heh-heh-heh). Ramón barrels through a table, sending bread EVERYWHERE, before tail-whipping one guest head over heels through the wedding cake, and sends another crashing into the roof of a gazebo (gator’s got aim). Soon after, Scientist Groom gets used as a toothpick while Slade hides in his Limo as the mayor desperately hammers on the window. Then (and here’s where it gets really good), the mayor is picked up by Ramón and used like a human battering ram against the vehicle. When that doesn’t work, more tail force is required to flatten the Limo’s roof and finally reduce Slade to what must now resemble a sat-on hamburger.

It could roll the credits right here and I'd still be happy.

This part’s so good, it’s almost a shame. By peaking like that, the film can’t hope to emulate the same level of energy for its conclusion: the final confrontation between Madison and Ramón down in the sewer lair. Not helping much is the looming spectre of setup and payoff. An early scene in which Madison details the catastrophic result of a methane explosion he once witnessed means it’s not hard to figure out how this is all gonna end.

Bah, details! In case you hadn’t already guessed, Alligator never takes itself too seriously. I reckon Sayles was giggling like a hyperactive 8-year-old while typing his script. There’s a lot of obvious love for the genre that shows in his writing; and having it complemented by such a great collection of talent makes the film a blast. 

Just to end a high note, there was only ever one belated and crappy direct-to-video sequel released to take a dump on its legacy. Silver linings and all that...    


  1. Great review! I love this film, really underrecognized piece -- I agree with most of what you say, especially with the kid murder bit being really out of place and unnecessary. I also agree the effects were surprisingly good, made only 5 years after 'Jaws' and for quite the lesser amount of money, but still better than them.

    I liked the climax though. Loved those shots of the Alligator walking slowly through on the sewer floor.

    1. Glad you liked it, and that's a good point - the sewer scenes were very atmospheric.

      And I may be wrong, but I think the sequel even recycled a few of this film's nicer shots.

  2. I just skipped the sequel altogether, so I have no idea either. :P