Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
1980's Alligator is an oddball monster movie that reverses audience expectations: the monster is only so-so but the writing, direction and acting are exceptional. Actor Robert Forster and relative newcomer director Lewis Teague lead what amounts to an all-star cast. The paternity for this old-fashioned monster mash can be traced through the previous tongue-in-cheek Piranha back to the monster blockbuster Jaws five years earlier. Thanks in no small part to a witty, non-condescending script by John Sayles, Alligator is an entertaining surprise.
Sleazy pet store owner Luke Gutchel (Sydney Lassick) has been dog-snatching puppies for the illegal research experiments of unscrupulous pharmaceutical executive Slade (Dean Jagger). A baby alligator flushed into the Chicago sewer system has grown to enormous size by feeding on the carcasses of pets injected with a growth hormone. Detective David Madison (Robert Forster) meets herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) while investigating both the pet disappearances and a spate of dismemberment murders in the sewers. Nobody believes him after he barely escapes from a massive, 36-foot killer gator loose in the streets beneath Chicago.
The 1970s were hard times for unpretentious monster movies, a popular genre reduced to the dregs of The Giant Spider Invasion and Food of the Gods while the upscale Jaws raked in all the cash. Alligator is no classic but it distinguishes itself by respecting the intelligence of its audience. Earnest enough to be taken seriously and smart enough to have a sense of humor, the well-directed picture delivers more than its fair share of thrills.
Robert Forster's working-stiff detective Madison maintains his composure whether dealing with a premature hair loss problem or a human arm that turns up in the city's water treatment plant. He's lost a puppy to the plague of pet-nappings and intuits that something is amiss at the local pharmaceutical research plant, where experimental dogs have their vocal chords cut so they won't bark all day.
Jaws developed an 'enemy of the people' theme by placing public safety in conflict with the economic needs of a Massachusetts beach town. Screenwriter John Sayles takes that idea one step further by blaming everything on the profit motive. Florida gators are put on display for a cheap show while their endangered offspring are sold as pets. The drug company hires a dog-snatcher to steal experimental subjects and uses its clout to have David Madison fired when he gets too close to the truth. When the contaminated puppy carcasses are dumped in the sewer, the giant gator that results is a genuine capitalist Godzilla. In his commentary Sayles explains that he wanted the monster to literally eat its way up the economic ladder, from ghetto neighborhoods to middle class homes with swimming pools. The problem is largely ignored until the alligator invades a ritzy country club party. Striking a funny note, the first thing the gator sees at the soirée is a fancy French poodle, a tasty snack. And with none of those unwanted hormone additives he's been eating!
Director Lewis Teague (The Lady in Red) works wonders by fast-cutting between a live alligator in miniature sets and a large animatronic gator that can barely move. The monster's snout smashes though sidewalks, while its victims barely get a chance to see more than a set of giant teeth closing in on them. The attacks are surprisingly effective and as unpredictable as the gator itself. Just when we're expecting a big joke, a suburban kid disappears in his own backyard pool, leaving his speechless pals staring at an underwater cloud of blood.
The changing face of film work in 1980 meant that actors were desperate for any role that wouldn't harm their careers, and the makers of Alligator used their personal connections -- and Sayles' generous bit parts -- to attract an amusing cast. Sidney Lassick was cut out of the previous year's 1941 and is a great choice for a sleazy mutt thief. Perry Lang holds up his end as an amiable rookie cop. Michael V. Gazzo (The Godfather Part II) is David's jaded police chief. Dean Jagger's ruthless executive is a precursor of "The Old Man" from the first two RoboCop films. Jack Carter is the jerk of a Mayor while Henry Silva has fun as a cocky big game hunter who hires ghetto kids as his 'native bearers.' The film's happy ending sees most of these pushy characters becoming Gator Chow. Nervy reporter Bart Braverman is none other than child actor Bart Bradley, from 1957's 20 Million Miles to Earth. Popping up in much smaller bits are Angel Tompkins, Sue Lyon and Mike Mazurki.
Lionsgate's DVD of Alligator is an acceptable enhanced transfer of a film released by Group 1, the distributor of pictures like The Clonus Horror and The Sword and the Sorcerer. Colors are a bit weak but the film otherwise is in excellent condition.
The welcome commentary and new featurette Alligator Author (produced by Carl Daft, David Gregory and Gary Hertz) demonstrate the care and attention Lionsgate has afforded this disc. Writer John Sayles' charming and sensible account of his involvement in the movie shows that he respects genre films and wanted to make a good one. He remembers that the animatronic alligator's head was too heavy, and had a tendency to tip over forward. The film's most frequently printed still shows a stick tucked under its chin to hold it up!
Del Howison of Burbank's Dark Delicacies store and website hosts a pleasant and down-to-earth commentary with actor Robert Forster and director Lewis Teague. Teague explains that his The Lady in Red hadn't done well, so he wasted no time 'biting' at the offer to direct Alligator. Teague, Sayles and Forster were given relative freedom -- within the framework of a picture about a big lizard that eats people. They come off as personable and grudge-free, and Alligator is a credit to be proud of.
A trailer completes the package. Alligator came out just as home video came in; just ten years later small movies about big monsters were no longer receiving serious theatrical distribution. Low budget Sci-Fi and horror retreated to the Straight-to-Video market, an outlet that dried up when larger companies put bigger resources into shows for playoff on cable TV outlets like the Sci-Fi channel. The Alligator disc begins with a promo for just such a new production, with its curiously uninteresting giant CGI monsters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good +++
Video: Good +
Supplements: Commentary with Del Howison, Lewis Teague and Robert Forster; interview featurette with John Sayles.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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