Horror fans love when nature takes a bite out of humanity. And it can’t just be a regular-sized animal or insect. The bigger, the better. Following the massive success of Jaws, studios rushed to some version of a larger-than-average animal attacking a small community. Grizzly, Orca, Tentacles, Razorback – they all copied Steven Spielberg’s formula with varying degrees of success. Of course, none of these movies ever approached Jaws. in fact, most of these movies weren’t particularly good. But 1980 independent horror Alligator succeeds where these movie failed by virtue of never taking itself too seriously. When your movie is about a 36-foot alligator emerging from an urban sewer, it’s good to have a sense of humor.
Twelve years ago, a a man flushed his daughter’s baby pet alligator down the toilet. Instead of dying in the sewers, the alligator fed off pet carcasses injected with experimental growth hormones. Not only did it survive, the alligator grew to an incredible size with an insatiable appetite. As bodies turn up in the city’s sewers and its food supply dwindles, the alligator finally surfaces for an unstoppable feeding frenzy.
Alligator Has Fun With a Familiar Eco-Horror Formula
Writer John Sayles is no stranger to satirizing horror genres. Just two years prior to Alligator, Sayles collaborated with Joe Dante on horror-comedy, Piranha. He’d work with Dante again on the werewolf classic, The Howling. Like Piranha, Alligator mirrors the basic nature-strikes-back narrative popularized by Jaws and recycles by any number of eco-horror movies. As compared to inferior imitators, like Tentacles or Squirm, Alligator works for the same reason Piranha did – it’s story winks at the audience. On the surface, director Lewis Teague plays it straight but he has fun with a lot of tropes that had been endlessly recycled by 1980.
…. Alligator works for the same reason Piranha did – it’s story winks at the audience.
Yes, there’s a law enforcement officer who warns everyone of the danger. And of course, no one initially believes him. There’s a corrupt mayor who’s more concerned about his re-election prospects than public safety. We’ve also got the professional hunter – who proves to be a useless version of Quint – and the scientist-expert who double-duties as the love interest. Most of Alligator parallels Jaws with lots of little callbacks – today we’d call them ‘Easter Eggs’. But there’s playfulness to the way in which Alligator tackles the material. At no point does this blend of science fiction and horror pretend to be scary or important – this is pure B-movie goodness.
Alligator Crawls Around a Limited Budget to Deliver Enough Thrills
Though most of his work was pretty minor, director Lewis Teague (Cujo, Cat’s Eye) paces Alligator like a fun B-movie that may have played at drive-in’s 20 years earlier. For the movie’s first half, Teague wisely keeps his 36-foot gator hidden away from the audience. Lighting and quick editing help build anticipation with just a few glimpses through a victim’s harried photographs. Not surprisingly, some of the effects haven’t aged particularly well. Still more of alligator attack scenes hold up better than expected. If the first full appearance stretches the movie’s budget, the outdoor wedding is an absolute scene-stealer. But it’s a scene in a backyard pool that stands out for its pure shock value. A handful of quick, but effective, gore effects and a suspenseful finale are bonuses.
If the first full appearance stretches the movie’s budget, the outdoor wedding is absolute scene-stealer.
Similar to Jaws, Alligator benefits from decent performances from its human characters. Don’t expect anything on par with Robert’s Shaw’s take on Quint. But Robert Forster’s (Jackie Brown, The Wolf of Snow Hollow) performance in the lead role is fun and breezy. Specifically, Forster is a charismatic actor who instantly invests his Detective David Madison with the kind of affability that makes him easy to cheer for. On other hand, contemporary audiences may take issue with Robin Riker’s herpetologist, Dr Marisa Kendall. Nothing’s wrong with Riker’s performance. But Alligator quickly regulates her to a love interest role all but dismissing her as an expert.
Alligator Delivers Perfect B-Movie Thrills for Horror Fans
If you’re going to make a movie about giant killer animals, this is how you do it. Rather than simply recycling Jaws, Teague and Sayles subtly poke fun at the box office juggernaut’s countless imitators. It helps that Alligator rarely slows down, boast plenty of reptilian action alongside some fun gore. Over 40 years later, the effects still hold up well enough. And the performances are committed but fun – everyone knows what they signed signed up for in Alligator. What the movie ultimately delivers is B-movie fun well worth watching.