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.
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 character 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:
1. And, note in the photo
on the package back, that even Paul's hands are unaffected, indicating a paste-up photo job.