When body parts start showing up in Chicago’s water treatment plant, Detective David Madison is tasked with investigating the grisly dismemberments. Based on the location of the body parts, the city is afraid there might be a killer on the loose stalking the sewers, so Madison and a young cohort traipse down into the muck and mud under the city in search of clues. Naturally, they’re expecting to find a human, but what they discover instead is a ginormous 36-foot long Alligator named Ramon with a serious case of the munchies. Perhaps predictably, nobody believes Madison’s claims of “an alligator did it!” when he comes back up from the sewers sans partner, but after a nosey newspaper reporter manages to get photographic evidence of the creature, not only is Madison vindicated, but the entire city kicks into high gear to try to figure out a way to stop the beast before it consumes anyone else.
Rate of success so far: ABJECT FAILURE
Alligator is yet another movie that owes its existence to the success of Jaws. Not that giant, man-eating monsters weren’t present in film long before Steven Spielberg came along (see Them!, The Black Scorpion, Prophecy, or any of the countless Kaiju movies Japan has popped out since 1954), but the giant shark film went and not only showed that such movies could be popular, but also make an insane amount of money at the same time. Meaning that Alligator is just one of many films to follow the success of Bruce, and to try to hit that horror sweet spot and milk you for your hard-earned dollars by throwing an inexplicably large, man-eating predator at you to try to draw you into the theater. But despite itself being a monster movie, Alligator did something a little different by satirizing the very genre it was emulating. And that really helps it to stand out, because yes, while that sort of thing had been done before, and is quite frequently used now, Alligator did it a good decade+ before that self-mockery line of storytelling really became as popular as it has today. Yet at the same time, it also managed to be a fairly fun monster movie too.
At its heart, Alligator tells a very familiar tale about how man’s hubris and recklessness can cause catastrophic consequences. In film’s such as this, a lot of times those consequences are the result of pollution or atomic interference, etc., etc., or in other words, careless disregard. In Alligator’s case, it shows how a combination of those problems can converge. The first catalyst for this scaly natural disaster starts 12 years prior to the main events of the film, when one of the main characters is A) allowed to bring a live alligator home with her from Florida (which was a real-life thing people did back in the day that still boggles my mind) and B) when her father randomly decides to flush his daughter’s new, still living pet down the toilet. Why did he do this? We don’t know. We can only assume it’s because he’s some sort of mockery of parental sadism, because no explanation is given beyond his gleeful smile as the lizard slowly circles the drain. Regardless, the tiny little thing has now made its way down into the sewers. Which should have been where the story ended, because, amusing urban legend or not, any common sense wielding adult knows that the odds of a reptile making it that far through the pipe system without dying are slim to none, and the odds of finding food down there are even worse. But this is where catalyst two kicks in, because a nearby lab researching growth hormones has apparently also been dumping their experimental animal carcasses down in the sewers instead of burning them like they’re supposed to. So now not only does the little critter have a readily accessible food supply, but he also manages to get jacked at the same time, thus turning what was once perhaps only a minor inconvenience into a VERY big, 36-foot-long problem.
And to think, it all could have been avoided if this lunatic wasn’t allowed to have kids.
Naturally, you’re thinking this plot is ridiculous. But that’s okay! Because Alligator is the kind of movie that’s smart enough to realize how stupid it’s premise is. Meaning the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yet at the same time it also plays things straight enough to not be considered an outright comedy. It’s the kind of ridiculous movie that’s smart enough to know it’s ridiculous and to laugh at itself, either by way of witty lines, sharp script, or silly character quirks. There’s even a few “inside” jokes regarding a couple of the actors, like including quips about lead actor Robert Forster’s receding hairline (which would happen again in Jackie Brown in 1997), and in having actress Sue Lyon, who started her career playing the titular character in Lolita, Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film about a 14-year-old that older men become infatuated with, getting hit on by—wait for it—a much older man, complete with creepy alligator mating calls. There are a few overt and subtle instances of humor as well, but everything flows rather smoothly and nothing feels forced, making the film feel like the fun little romp in which it was intended.
But that doesn’t mean they skimped on their monster design either, because not only is this thing big, but it also looks rather well made, and even manages to be pretty creepy at times, especially in the beginning when you just catch glimpse of him in the sewers…. Assuming of course that their animatronic was working that day. Much like Jaws, Ramon the alligator suffered the same performance anxiety, meaning that, just like the shark, he often didn’t work as intended and the filmmakers were forced to cut back on using him as much as they had originally planned. In Jaws, this was fine, as the lack of the shark ended up making the animal more menacing. But “menacing” wasn’t 100% what this film was going for, so the producers of Alligator just said, “screw it” and superimposed a real-life alligator into certain scenes. If you’re wondering, yes, those moments look hokey as hell, but thankfully the film had some competent people working for it, so for a film from 1980 they actually did a pretty seamless job of making you think there was a gator in the sewers. It still may look a little cheesy in some spots, but then, the movie itself is pretty cheesy. And they did do a very good job when it comes to fake Ramon, so seeing him in scenes occasionally split with real-life Ramon doesn’t look too out of place.
In fact, I think their gator robot looks pretty damn good.
But that wasn’t the only work-around the filmmakers had to do. While superimposing a gator in scenes without any humans is perfectly fine, doing the same thing with a lot of people running around, like during a crowded wedding party for instance, is going to be a royal pain in the technological butt, even today. So usually the most you see of Ramon during his various bloody rampages are quick glimpses of his various body parts, like shots of his massive tail swinging back and forth to cause wanton destruction, or flinging hapless waitstaff some 40-odd-feet into the nearest buffet table. Which, honestly, just seems rude to me, really. I mean, yeah, good for him for getting so much distance with one tail swipe, that’s pretty sweet, but poor form on the part of the filmmakers for spending so much time torturing the help when they had a perfectly good plethora of wealthy a-holes the gator could have just as easily stomped on or eaten during that wedding scene instead. Why you gotta do the poor underpaid workers so dirty like that, movie? I mean, the least you could have done was flick some fat, pompous douchebag into the closest bramble bush. Is that so much to ask?
This just seems unnecessarily mean to me, is all….though maybe not as mean as eating that poor kid in the pool. That was pretty dark.
All I’m saying is it would have been nice to see more of the alligator in Alligator, but even barring that, what we got was still a pretty fun movie. It’s not a great monster movie, and you can tell it was fairly low budget. But you can also tell that it did at least have some funds and solid planning behind it, so it wasn’t a no-budget outing that you can just gleefully mock because of ridiculous incompetence (please see the Killer Crocodile and Killer Crocodile 2 films for comparison). No, this movie knows what it is, knows how silly it is, and happily mocks itself while taking you along for the ride. It’s a ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ type of film that wants you to be in on the joke, but is also competent enough in other areas, like plot, visuals, and monster design, that even if you don’t catch every joke or reference, it still ends up being a fun little monster movie. Is it cheesy? Yes. But it’s meant to be cheesy, and it chose to be cheesy in all the right ways, and sometimes that’s all you need for your late-night horror viewing.
Alligator is available on a variety of streaming services.
Alligator is also available on Bluray.
2 thoughts on “Alligator (1980)”
I saw this when I was a kid and it terrified me of getting on the toilet for real. How funny. Memories!
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Ha! I had a similar experience with pools after my parents let me watch Poltergeist. Though now that I’m older I suspect that was a strategic choice on their part because they didn’t want to get a pool.
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