In the years following the boffo box office of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, it was only natural for Hollywood to jump into the metaphorical swamps of the infant killer animal genre and “wrassle” and idea they could in order to get it to the big screen. Some attempts, using various giant toothed predators such as Grizzly and Barracuda (of all things), were predictably awful and yet some were smart, savvy and most of all entertaining. It may or may not surprise you then, that the two main contenders for King Of The Jaws Ripoff (not a real award) were written by the same guy, John Sayles the first of which was 1978’s Piranha and the second came in 1980 and ended up being the hugely fun Alligator.
Blending robust characterization, a plot involving a corruption of city politics and illegal chemical experimentation and dumping and a shit load of subtle, colourful humor, Alligator easily achieves what every ripoff movie desires in it’s heart of hearts: to stand on it’s own two claws.
Kicking off it’s story with the amusing urban legend involving a baby alligator being flushed into the sewers, the movie has it’s scaley lead grow to super-sized proportions after it feasts on animal carcasses that were experimented on with growth hormones. Gnawing on any unsuspecting sap who wanders down there, the ‘Gator’s handiwork starts to get noticed so troubled and weathered Detective David Madison (a fantastically weary Robert Forster) enlists the aid of a rookie to head down into the tunnels under Chicago and take a look. Needless to say only Madison makes it out alive and yet no one initially believes his outlandish story about massive a reptile consuming people while wading knee deep in shit.
Eventually the existence of the alligator becomes known but by then it’s busted out of it’s stinky home and rampaging through the streets and swimming pools of The Windy City; can Madison and reptile expert Marisa Kendall track the toothy bastard down before it chomps more city folks into slurry?
While sounding hokey as Hell on paper and adopting many of Jaws’ basic plot beats (POV shots, corrupt city officials, surprising child body count) Sayles script subverts the newly minted sub-genre nicely by mixing up the cop, hunter, expert dynamic into something a little more unpredictable and doubling down on some seriously good characterization. Everyone in this movie feels like a three-dimensional, living, breathing (until they get eaten of course) person, from Marisa’s nosey mother, to Henry Silva’s horny big game hunter, to David’s running gag about people noticing his receding hair line; Alligator is very, very funny, but it all comes naturally from the characters and therefore doesn’t scupper the carnage.
Ah, yes. The carnage. Having a smart script and characters to actually want to root for is all well and good, but the movie’s called ALLIGATOR dammit, we want our bipedal gator chow!
And get it we do under the crisp direction of Lewis Teague (no stranger to four legged bitey things as he went on to make Cujo) who is wise enough to give the cracking script room to breathe and ochestrates the various set pieces with aplomb, be it a poor bastard getting swallowed whole in an alleyway (not in THAT way, you perverts) or the vast lizardy sod smashing a car flat with it’s tail with it’s passengers screaming inside it.
The creature effects… are as about as good as Jaws, actually. Neither exactly good enough to fool David Attenborough even it he was blindfolded, but toothy and edited well enough to be a monster worthy of a few healthy scares.
A classic, seemingly forgotten by genre fans in general, Alligator was, and still is, one of the best Jaws imitators ever made and definitely overdue for the the lush, re-release treatment that both Joe Dante’s Piranha and Grizzy (?) have gotten.
Watch you later, Alligator.
Make sure you do…