After the commercial success of Jaws in 1975, there followed a wealth of low budget creature features, hell bent on separating the viewing public from their hard earned cash. At one point every conceivable species of animal featured in a movie in which it went on the rampage and dined on B list actors and sundry extras. Many of these films left no lasting impression and vanished into obscurity (only to be resurrected a decade later during the eighties video boom). However even in this desert of cinematic mediocrity, a few examples stood out as an oasis of independent creativity. Alligator is one of these. It has stood the test of time because it’s smart and has a good pedigree.
Firstly, the screenplay written by genre luminary and indie film-maker John Sayles is witty and satirical. The characters are likeable, with amusing foibles. The story makes sly digs at the very formula of the genre, itself. The dialogue is smart and extremely quotable. Secondly, director Lewis Teague knows exactly how to handle the material. The film has a stark and grimy eighties feel to it. The protagonists are not “beautiful people” (as they would be if the film were remade) and the production design is realistic, reflecting the Reagan era. For the bulk of the movie, the giant alligator preys on the poor in a rough neighbourhood. The authorities don’t really care until the creature moves uptown.
The film has a solid cast of quality character actors. Robert Forster delivers a sympathetic performance as a world weary detective, living in bachelor squalor, fighting male pattern baldness and City Hall politics. Victor Gazzo plays his harassed boss and Henry Silva excels as a flamboyant, misogynist, Great White hunter. There is also a nice cameo by Bart Braverman (anyone remember that TV series Vegas?) as a sleazy tabloid journalist (is there any other kind?) who gets the scoop of his life at a hefty price. All characters are well defined and credible due to John Sayles’ intelligent and smart screenplay.
The story is fairly straight forward and starts with an unwanted pet Alligator being flushed down the toilet. After eating illegally dumped medical waste loaded with growth hormones, the reptile grows to an exceptional size and soon goes looking for a suitable food supply. However it is the quirky characters and subplots that make the film so enjoyable. Henry Silva's urban safari is particularly amusing. Dean Jagger plays the corrupt CEO of a pharmaceutical company who "owns" the local Mayor. Their exchanges of dialogue, especially at a fateful wedding party, are very well observed.
Now for a modest budget film, the special effects are quite good. The beastie of the title is kept suitably hidden for the first third of the film. Later, the attack scenes are carefully crafted to maximise shock and hide the short comings of the animatronic reptile. In wider shots a full size Alligator is used on scaled down sets, to good effect. The death scenes are fairly brutal but not excessive. Alligator also breaks the Hollywood mainstream taboo, of killing a child on camera. It even has the cheek to do it in an amusing way. Alligator has a broad streak of gallows humour running through its ninety odd minute running time.
Alligator is very much a product of its time, reflecting the best aspects of independent film making that came from the US during the late seventies. Its intelligence and humour make it more than just your average creature feature. It not only entertains but provides an interesting socio-economic snapshot of the times. The screenplay and casting once again prove that when you have a solid script and the right actors, you’ve won half the battle already. The minimalist special effects work to the film’s advantage and allow the viewers to immerse themselves in the story and performances. When the shocks come they have far more impact as you actually care about the central characters.