Saturday, December 13, 2014

#196: Alligator (Lewis Teague, 1980)

Alligator is one of the most likable and most entertaining of the '70s/'80s wave of low-budget, post-Jaws giant killer animal movies, and I recommend it to anyone who likes character actor-dominated exploitation movies with witty, campy screenplays. I also recommend it to anyone who enjoys big-ass alligators chomping down on lots of people who deserve their comeuppance, which is all of us, right? They just don't make them like this anymore, and that really sucks for humankind. (Insert rant about modern genre and Hollywood filmmaking from many past reviews here.)
Alligator was an early film for director Lewis Teague, who went on to make the Tom Skerritt vigilante movie Fighting Back, Cujo, Cat's Eye, the Romancing the Stone sequel The Jewel of the Nile, Navy Seals, and a TV movie that reunited the original cast of The Dukes of Hazzard. To be honest, Teague is the weak link of Alligator. Before he became a more conventional director-for-hire, he was a bit rough and tumble, and Alligator is visually lacking in finesse, personality, or any kind of signature directorial style. You don't watch Alligator for its visual beauty or panache. Fortunately, Alligator has a very funny, silly, tongue-in-cheek screenplay from John Sayles, who at the time augmented his more serious independent directorial career with screenplays for smartly campy B-movies like Piranha, The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars, and this film. You also get a cast that is loaded with some of the most enjoyable character actors of the '70s and '80s, including Robert Forster, Michael V. Gazzo, Henry Silva, Robin Riker, Sydney Lassick, Dean Jagger, and even Lolita herself, Sue Lyon, in a cameo as a TV news reporter.
Alligator begins with a prologue set in 1968. A middle-aged couple and their young daughter are watching an alligator-wrestling exhibition, which ends badly when the gator wrangler trips on a wet log and gets his leg chomped by the gator. The girl is captivated by the reptile despite the gore and buys a baby alligator, which she puts in an aquarium at home. She plans to donate it to a zoo when it gets too big. Her angry father doesn't want a gator in his home, no matter how tiny, so he flushes it down the toilet while his daughter is at school.
Fast-forward to the present. It is now 1980 and we are still in the never-named Missouri city where the gator was flushed. (In a triumph for authenticity, Los Angeles stands in for Missouri here.) The alligator did not die in the sewers in its youth. Thanks to an unscrupulous millionaire who is financing illegal scientific research, hundreds of dogs are being kidnapped and subjected to highly cruel animal testing in an attempt to make them grow much larger much faster. This all has something to do with ending world hunger, but that part never makes any sense. The dead dogs are disposed of in the sewer by an unscrupulous pet store owner (Lassick) who is selling the kidnapped dogs to the unscrupulous millionaire. The chemically embiggened dog carcasses are a great food source for the alligator, who grows insanely huge in his sewer abode.
Soon, the gator is not just chomping on dogs. He eats some city workers, and the police think they have a serial killer on their hands. Homicide detective with a troubled past David (Forster) is assigned to the case by Chief Clark (the awesomely eye-browed and gravelly voiced Gazzo), but when he discovers their murderer is actually a giant alligator, his story is greeted with ridicule. He wins over the initially skeptical herpetologist and internationally renowned gator expert Marisa (Riker), who teaches at the local university, and the town finally comes around when a journalist gets some photos of the monster reptile. The police attempt to flush out the beast and kill it, but the gator gets loose and goes on a hilarious and awesome rampage. David starts poking a little too much into the illegal scientific research and runs afoul of the corrupt mayor, who takes him off the case and installs a hilariously sexist and racist big game hunter from out of town named Brock (played by the legendary Henry Silva) who thinks he's America's number one badass and who tries to seduce a TV reporter by wooing her with his impression of the gator's mating call.
This is all pretty entertaining stuff. The gator chomps down on sleazy journalists, racist macho dicks, corrupt politicians, and millionaire fat cats, interrupts a stickball game, crashes a wedding reception, swims in a pool, swims in a lake, and even manages to eat a little kid. (They actually kill a child in this movie, something that is horribly tragic in real life but pretty hilarious in B-movies, for some reason.) Finally, David and Marisa, who are also falling in love, decide that enough is enough and go after the gator themselves. A pretty sweet finale ensues, and fun is had by all.
What more can I say? I don't have much in the way of critical, historical, or social analysis here. This is, after all, a film about a giant alligator going nuts on a fictional Missouri town. However, the script is full of clever nods to other movies and funny jokes, and the actors give their characters neat little beats and details that make them feel like real people even though the story is intentionally ridiculous. It's also nice to see the kind of creeps who bring shame to our country get eaten by a giant alligator. This will probably never happen in real life, but we can always dream that one day a gator may eat Dick Cheney, the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, etc. I like this movie a lot. It's a feelgood romp that beats the pants off other feelgood romps like The English Patient and Alligator II, and I recommend it to those who share my sensibility.

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