David Madison (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a Chicago homicide detective assigned to investigate the body parts that keep showing up in the city’s sewer system. When he discovers the culprit is an alligator of unusual size, can Detective Madison convince the police to do anything before it’s too late?
One of the reasons films become “cult” movies is the joy of discovery, of finding something unexpected, especially when you weren’t even looking. That joy is now, in this internet age where every third film fan seems to have a blog and you can casually look up cast and crew information, pretty rare. The days when you’d stumble upon the awe-inspiring shittiness of a Dracula Vs. Frankenstein because it caught your eye in the video store or when you could be gobsmacked by a chance viewing of The Cars that Ate People (Peter Weir’s arty prefiguring of Ossie carsploitation) on a UHF station on a Saturday afternoon are over. That kind of serendipity, especially the moments of wondering “What in God’s name am I watching?” or “Wait, Charles Bronson was in a romantic comedy Western?” , instantly endeared films to you. One thing that I’ve become wary of, as an obsessive film fan, are cult films with big reputations and tiny budgets, especially as I’m often so far behind the curve. By the time I see a film I’ve heard about (if not seen clips of) the best scenes and listened to the best lines bandied about by fellow obsessives until all power or humor is spent. Expectations are set impossibly high, and whatever made the film unique or a guilty pleasure may have lost its power or novelty through imitation.
I was especially worried about Alligator, exactly the kind of underdog cult film that my habits set up to fail. I’d seen bits and pieces of it on TV years ago (maybe on USA Network?) and it never seemed that promising, with incredibly murky sewer scenes, an air of cheapness about it, a paint by numbers plot and a largely immobile alligator puppet. I’d also see parts of Alligator II around the same time, an memories of the two mixed together. Was this the one with Richard Lynch (Invasion U.S.A.) as the Cajun alligator hunter, or the one with Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate) hiring “native” guides to the ghetto for ten dollars a day and Schlitz? I don’t think anything could be improved by confusing it with Alligator II, an eleven-years-too-late attempt to cash in on Alligator‘s cult popularity on video and cable, with a lower rent cast (Joseph Bologna instead of Robert Forster?), cheaper effects, and none of the wry humor provided in the original by screenwriter John Sayles (The Howling).
It was a pleasant surprise, then, to find that Alligator is that far too rare animal: the cult movie that lives up to its reputation. Sayles and director Lewis Teague (Navy SEALs) deliver a monster on the loose film that follows the genre’s template while simultaneously providing moments that subvert it. The obligatory love interest subplot is, for once, nearly plausible and even a little charming; our herpetologist love interest Marisa (Robin Riker, Get a Life) even ties into the monster’s back story. Alligator manages more depth than most films of its type, with jokes (Madison’s thinning hair, Marisa’s overbearing mother, for example) that help humanize the characters, and even social commentary (pay attention to the class of the victims). There are inside jokes for film and movie buffs (“Harry Lime Lives” graffiti, a sewer worker named Edward Norton*). We still get the basic monster movie template but the humor and atypical attention to detail and character smooth out the budgetary issues. This is no small consideration when you’re trying to pass off L.A. as Chicago or when your animatronic alligator malfunctions and you’re forced to shoot scenes on miniature sets with a live alligator (to give the FX team their due, most of these shots actually look pretty good, with the exception of the last).
The cast is a major help in making Alligator better than it should be on paper. Forster makes boilerplate cop drama moments (like anguish over the partner you failed to protect) work. Riker and Forster sell the romance, playing it straight with just the right amount of humor, helped by a script that keeps things recognizably awkward and halting. I love Henry Silva’s delight at finding a giant spoor in an alleyway. Rounding out the cast are Dean Jagger (X: The Unknown) playing the obligatory evil capitalist, in this case the owner of the drug company responsible for our embiggened reptile; Sydney Lassick (1941) playing a corrupt pet store owner; and Jack Carter (History of the World Part 1) as the mayor. Whether it was the script or the direction, I even found myself rooting for Perry Lang (The Big Red One) whom I usually find tolerable at best. In what is probably a coincidence, Bart Braverman, the little bastard from 20 Million Miles to Earth, even shows up all grown up as a reporter.
Alligator is a must see for monster movie fans and even the non-fan that can tolerate fun examples of the genre (the Baroness, for a perfect example) should find it worth their while.
*The Baroness caught that one without knowing the Edward Norton being referenced was Ed Kramden’s neighbor from The Honeymooners (who worked in NYC’s sewer system), as opposed to the actor.