In fact, I went to college in the mid-1980’s, and Alligator was exactly the kind of home video movie rental that played on the fraternity house television set quite probably hundreds of times … and I honestly never quite understood why. Though I only watched passing snippets of it – never sitting down with the brothers to digest it all in a single sitting – I was never that impressed with it. (Honestly, back in those days, I was more into cinema classics than anything else, but I could appreciate the random Evil Dead or Re-Animator as anyone else my age.) As a Horror feature, it seemed cheaply made; and I just didn’t find it all that frightening. Still, the picture persisted, and – as I said – it was rented and watched more times than I care to remember.
In any event, I recently caught it screening on one of those Friday Night Turner Classic Movies presentations, so I DVR’d it for posterity’s sake and (finally!) sat through it from start to finish. Better late than never, am I right? I guess I figured I owed it to my contemporaries to experience something I was never gaga over despite all of the opportunities. Though my opinion of it really didn’t change – it’s a bit of charming shlock, at best – I’ll offer up a few other thoughts out of respect for my peers … not like they deserve it for believing as they did that this was one of the high points of 80’s cinema.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“A pet baby alligator is flushed down a toilet and survives in the city sewers. 12 years later, it grows to an enormous size thanks to a diet of discarded laboratory dogs injected with growth hormones. Now, humans have entered the menu.”
I’ve long made peace with the fact that my critics complain that I have a tendency to “suck the fun” out of everything.
You see, I’m in many ways a realist, so movies – while entirely fictional (or to a degree) – present a unique challenge. Clearly, they’re conceived as entertainment, but because of the way I look at the world at large I do require that they – in their own estimable way – make sense. Plot holes ruin the experience for me – even ones that appear so glaringly obvious that perhaps they were meant in jest – and developments or twists that arise inorganically pull me out of the experience. Layered storytelling should progress logically; if not, then there’s a hint of artifice to all of the world, and the resulting failure of cohesiveness turns the meal sour for me. I can’t – as they say – just “get into it,” so I find the flick inferior.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. Trust me: I’ve heard it all before.
So when a young girl comes home to find that her baby alligator has gone missing … only for her to grow up to become the area’s – ahem – resident expert on alligators, I’m inclined to think this stuff only happens in movies. When a screenwriter adds even more layers of improbability to the yarn – such as having this little lost alligator subsist for over a dozen years on the diet of lost dogs ingested with illegally-tested growth hormones – the entire house of cards falls completely apart for me as, statistically, it would be damn near impossible for all of these elements to align themselves in such a way as to make this story – as conceived – remotely plausible.
Again, I know. Like I said: I’ve heard it before.
In some respects, Alligator represents one of the high points in bringing ‘the great urban legend’ to life. In fact, we’ve probably all heard stories of reptiles flushed down the toilet, and that is the opening catalyst for putting this creature feature on the cinematic map. Young Marisa (Leslie Brown) comes home from school to find her pet gone; while dad did the nasty deed, there’s never even unifying scene wherein he confesses it to his daughter. (In fact, I don’t think it’s ever touched on once it happens.) Just as we all collectively have wondered what might happen were this done, Alligator quickly ramps up the possibilities with some mad, mad science.
Where it stumbles – and it does seriously stumble – is that it relies too heavily and too consistently on develops that appear more of a screenwriter’s invention than it does authentic story development. Granted, storytellers have long established their loathing of corporations and commerce, but couldn’t Sayles come up with anything other than a big pharmaceutical company being the devil behind-the-curtain here? This trope has come up again and again in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and even back in the 1980’s it was considered ‘old hat.’ To make matters worse, how would it be – sigh – even fashionably possible that said pharmaceutical company would be sponsoring a huge outdoor gala which would be on the dreaded alligator’s escape route from the city? And – lo and behold – wouldn’t that be just the kind of shindig in which this hungry behemoth could stop and make a meal out of everyone seemingly responsible for its tragic condition?
Why … the story practically writes itself!
Thankfully, the film does benefit from some good casting.
Award-nominated actress Robin Riker’s career was really just getting in gear. IMDB.com shows that she’d enjoyed some small roles in television, and then the opportunity to go to second billing on a Horror feature dropped into her lap. (You go, girl!) Naturally, her good looks make her easy-on-the-eyes for audiences, and she pairs up opposite Forster with some nice chemistry despite the fact he’s a bit hard on her in some of the quieter moments. But men can stare at her gingery goodness all damn day, and that’s a fact.
Still, it’s hard for me to recognize Alligator as anything other than a modestly successful B-Movie that benefits from being a formulaic creature feature from an era in which ‘anything goes’ on the silver screen. It rarely makes sense – yes, I’ve already conceded the “it’s only a movie” argument – and there’s never really all that much time spent with the ‘gator itself. Call me old-fashioned, but I do like creature features that give me more monster time than anything else; and Alligator’s dark and dreary subterranean settings might be the perfect urban landscape to ratchet up fear, but I wanted more time spent with the critter than with some milquetoast supporting players.
Alligator (1980) was produced by Alligator (if you can believe IMDB.com). (Wikipedia.org reports that it was produced by Group 1 Films.)
As imperfect as Alligator (1980) was and will always be, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with it occupying some soft space in the hearts of 80’s film fans. (FYI: soft spots make it easier for the creature to chew!) It certainly represents a flick whose heart was in the right place, though any critical dissection of its characters, situations, and circumstances grinds the narrative to a serious halt. Still, kudos to those involved for launching a short-lived gator franchise as well as giving screen time to one of mankind’s more enduring urban legends. And God bless us Forster and Riker … a match made in cinema heaven.