Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It seems that about 1958 the major studios finally realized that teen-oriented monster movies
were actually making money. So they started to imitate them, naturally just as the subgenre was
dying out. Columbia
had put Sam Katzman on the trail of drive-in loot early on, but Paramount, MGM and Fox put
their noses up at the idea of such crass exploitation, until the boxoffice receipts from things
like Rodan perked up their ears.
Paramount bought up the independent The Blob and in 1958 lured William Alland from
Universal to do The Space Children while cornering
Eugene Lourie to film The Colossus of New York and whipping up their own Invasion of
the Body Snatchers ripoff, I Married A Monster from Outer Space.
Over at Fox, they promoted Kurt Neumann, the independent producer-director of She Devil and
Kronos and gave
him CinemaScope, stereo sound and a big budget to do The Fly. When it came time to provide
a cheapo Fly sequel, The Alligator People was cooked up to serve on a double bill.
The Alligator People is a real doozie, a silly monster picture done cheaply by industry
pros. There are a number of memorable supporting stars in the cast. They play the film's foolish
concept completely straight, and somehow survive the humiliation.
Two medical researchers (Bruce Bennett and Douglas Kennedy) hypnotize nurse Jane
Marvin (Beverly Garland) to hear her relate her strange story, a narrative so terrible that her
conscious mind has sublimated it in toto:
When her husband Paul Webster (Richard Crane) abandons her on her honeymoon, Jane (then named Joyce)
tracks him down to his bayou home, where his scientist father-in-law Mark Sinclair (George Macready)
is trying to cure him of side effects from a regeneration hormone derived from alligators. Jane not
only has to deal with her unbalanced husband, whose face and hands are covered with reptilian
scales, she's molested by the handyman Manon (Lon Chaney), a deranged bayou denizen with a
pathological hate of alligators.
Somewhere in the screenwriter's mind may have been the idea that The Alligator People was
going to be a moody classic of the Val Lewton sort. Lewton might have gone for the basic idea of a
search for a vanished husband and a family secret hidden in the bayou. But there's a wide margin
between Lewton's semi-literary adaptations and a drunken Lon Chaney Jr. stumbling through scenery
shouting, "I'll kill you, alligator man! Just like any four-legged gator!"
Beautiful, talented actress Beverly Garland probably saw it as an opportunity. Her worried wife
is in practically every scene, and even gets to be hypnotized for the wraparound that explains
the flashback. She gets to show concern for her husband, oppose the tyrannical mother in law ... not
a bad showcase role. Too bad it comes off as even sillier than her other monster picture,
Roger Corman's It Conquered the World.
As with She Devil, The Alligator People begins with a beautiful woman in the care of
a pair of doctors with very questionable ethics. With nobody else around, they put her under
hypnosis, after remarking how attractive she is. Then Douglas Kennedy starts talking to her as if
trying to be heard over a bad radio set: "Tell us the story."
As in The Fly, the story Joyce tells starts like a soap opera. Her husband ditches her
on her honeymoon night, right on the train. After a year or two of searching she locates her
errant hubby in a murky bayou plantation house. A couple of reels pass while she's pawed by the
local maniac, Lon Chaney's gator hater, and goes through the motions with Frieda Inescourt's
gloomy mom. Then comes the straight dope on her husband. She'd already been impressed by Paul's
scar-less revovery from a mangling in a plane crash, a cure effected by Dr. Sinclair's
regenerative alligator enzyme injections. But all of the doctor's prime patients are now turning
into scaly monsters, a rather inconvenient side effect. Paul split from Joyce the moment he received
a telegram confirming his prognosis, and now he croaks his wish that she go away at every
possible moment. What more encouragement does a gal need to find someone new?
Dramatically, The Alligator People goes nowhere. The character interaction is first
understated, then overstated, and scenes that might be meaningful are cut off - Joyce and her new
Mother-In-Law never really have a good sit down over coffee to discuss their common object of
concern, not even to establish who will get the handbag that can be made from him when the
transformation is complete. Dr. Sinclair is sympathetically played by the old master Macready,
but most of what he says is nonsense. A crate of radioactive material for his cobalt ray machine
(in addition to X-rays, naturally!) is dropped off at the local whistle stop like it was a load of
laundry detergent. His underwritten assistants (several musclemen) never question what's going on
and repeatedly refer to the isotope as "the bomb."
Dr. Sinclair also seems to have no idea exactly how his alligator enzyme worked, why it's now
mutating his patients, or what effect his augmented ray bombardment will have. He's basically
flying blind. We, of course, know that the desired effect is to turn Paul into the monster
from The Alligator People's poster.
That's where we feel cheated. At age seven, I was so knocked out by a TV spot for the movie
that I got my parents
to look the other way while I went to see The Alligator People; science fiction was okay but
they took a dim view of horror movies. I saw the alligator man on TV and knew I'd die if I didn't
get to see those dozens of alligator men I imagined would appear at the film's climax.
Dr. Sinclair's souped up X-Ray turns Paul into a bonafide crocodilian with a reptilian snout, and
Beverly Garland does an A+ scream at him, just as Patricia Owens had done in The Fly the
year before. We don't share any "alligator vision" with Paul but there are some electronic noises
from the earlier picture on the soundtrack. But then Alli- Paul basically does ... nothing. He
scampers blindly into the backlot bayou, wrestles a gator, and ... (spoiler next paragraph)
... commits suicide by quicksand. Now you see him, now you don't. Fox's fancy show was just as big
a cheat as the AIP quickies. It was the first time I felt vaguely ripped off in a movie theater.
We'd only just begun to see the final alligator man, and Paul's earlier mutated stage wasn't very
satisfying - when they took his shirt off, the scaly part is restricted to his hands and face. 1
The stinger is the film's abrupt ending. The two doctors bring Joyce out of her hypnotic trance, and
she blithely goes off on a date. She remembers nothing of her previous life under a different name,
and one of the doctors comments on the totality of her conscious denial (They should be wondering
how she's still nursing without changing her identity). Being completely ethics-challenged, they
decide that because she's one of those mysterious creatures called Women, the best thing to do is
just let her live in a state of self-deception.
Naturally, all these dramatic flubs and illogic is what makes the movie fun to see now.
The Alligator People was the last film directed by Roy Del Ruth, a veteran who had been making
movies for forty years, back into the teens. It was also the last film shot by Karl Struss, the
great cinematographer of a number of classics including Sunrise. The Fox production values look okay, but
there's nothing that impressive about the alligator costume, unless you're seven years old. The
rest of the movie looks and feels like a television film, only in CinemaScope.
Fox's DVD of The Alligator People is a beauty. The pristine elements and two-channel stereo
track will make any monster fan happy, and there's a lot of pleasure in seeing Beverly Garland
put through her paces. A likewise perfectly preserved trailer oversells the film and gives away
all of its secrets.
The greenish cover art combines the film's best imagery for a good corny graphic. 1959 audiences
must have laughed both the trailer and the film off the screen. Me, I kind
of like it ... but maybe it's a nostalgia thing. If anything, the B&W 'scope is a treat - I've
gotten real sick of seeing this show pan-scanned over the years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Alligator People rates:
Movie: Good (but only in a cultish way)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 8, 2004
1. And, note in the photo
on the package back, that even Paul's hands are unaffected, indicating a paste-up photo job.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson