Drive-In Dust Offs: ALLIGATOR

2015/10/17 16:51:24 +00:00 | Scott Drebit

Before he received acclaim as a writer/director of such films as Brother from Another Planet (’84), Matewan (’87), and The Secret of Roan Inish (’94), John Sayles made a splash on the horror scene as the writer of fun, clever satires such as Piranha (’78) and The Howling (’81). However, he did another that doesn’t get nearly as much love, and that’s his ode to an overgrown reptile, Lewis Teague’s Alligator (’80). Which is a shame, as it is just as much of a blast as the other two.

Alligator was released in July to solid reviews, and tripled its budget in returns, bringing in $6.5 million U.S. Not too bad for an independent (Group 1 International Distribution Organisation Ltd., the fine folks behind Ufo’s Are Real), and a good indicator that horror fans are always up for a smart romp. Alligator glides through that sweet swamp filled with fear and good humor.

Our film starts with a family vacationing in Florida, visiting an alligator park and watching a trainer almost get noshed on by one of the critters. Thinking, as kids do, that anything will make a good pet, the young daughter of the family begs her parents to let her buy a baby gator for back home. Her alligator (that she names Ramon – how cute!) is flushed down the toilet shortly thereafter by her father, who seems to have a disdain for the creature (good call, dad). We see Ramon swirl through the pipes and plop out into the sewer – his new home.

Fast forward 20 years, and city sewer workers are missing, last seen down below. It turns out our little Ramon has grown to a proper 36 feet, due to munching on  discarded pets, secretly dumped in the sewer after being subjected to hormone experiments by a Big Pharm company. This brings aboard David Madison (Robert Forster – Jackie Brown), your typical hard boiled, hard ass, no nonsense detective to crack the case. Helping David out is Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker – The Gregory Hines Show), a reptile expert who turns out to be – wait for it – the same little girl from the start of the film. When David’s plan to flush Ramon out of the sewer is a bust, and his attempt to expose the illegal experiments fails (the head of the corporation is buddies with the mayor), he is shown the door. Naturally, a big time game hunter named Colonel Brock (Henry Silva – Megaforce) is brought in by the city to deal with Ramon. When that doesn’t work, David and Marisa head back down to the sewers to put an end to the reptile’s subterranean feast.

Sayles’ work in horror was not about subverting the form, but rather reinforcing and playing with the structures already in place. His plots for Piranha and Alligator are essentially the same – which is to say, they’re both Jaws. Which is fine, it’s a fantastic template – where he excels is details, sly asides that tells us he’s in on the joke as well. All your stereotypes are here – the grizzled Police Chief, Clark (Michael Gazzo – The Godfather Part II), the evil head of Big Pharm, Slade (Dean Jagger – X: The Unknown), our gorgeous female scientist, etc. All are written not to mock, but rather to celebrate these types of films. Sayles’ genre writing never comes across as condescending – he has a genuine love for B movies and the characters that inhabit them. Of course David’s ex partner was killed, and of course someone else he teams up with will be in danger (Perry Lang in da house!). Sayles likes to jump his characters through the same hoops as his influences, but with a lighter touch than most. The eagle eyed will spot references to other films, not ripping off but ribbing, lovingly. Some sly social commentary is thrown in the mix as well – When Ramon first makes his way above ground, it’s in the low income district, and not much fuss is made by the authorities. However, when he gate crashes a white linen fete hosted by Slade, everyone pays attention. Leave it to Sayles to speak on ghettoization in a giant reptile movie.

Shepherding the shenanigans is director Lewis Teague, who in addition to Cujo (’83), also has the underrated Stephen King anthology Cat’s Eye (’85) on his resume. Teague handles suspense as well as anyone (the attack on the car in Cujo is brilliant) – and the scenes in the sewers ooze trepidation and dread. Ramon hides pretty well for someone his size, and the cinematography of Joseph Mangine (Alone in the Dark) comes alive in the subterranean shadows. And not to worry – if you came for a B movie buffet, you won’t be disappointed. Many limbs and lives are lost, not in the most graphic of ways, but you’ll certainly get the point.

A great cast will always honor the material, no matter how ludicrous – and this one has some heavy hitters. Gazzo, Jagger, Silva – veterans from B Westerns to A Mafias – have a grand time, leaving their unique impressions in what some would say (not us, of course) is a disreputable genre. Riker plays Marisa strong yet warm, and makes a likeable partner for Forster, who gives a wonderful, relaxed performance as David. His hang dog expressions and world weary sighs always get you on his side, which makes his battle against our reptilian friend all the more believable (and fun).

Alligator proves (as do all of Sayles’ horror ventures) that it’s never the subject matter that determines the strength or legitimacy of the genre – but rather, having the right amount of wit, talent, and heart to rise above the crowd. Or, as the case may be, to slither through the underground. Long live Ramon.

Alligator is available on DVD through Amazon.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: TORTURE GARDEN
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.