Alligator (1980)

Beneath those Manholes, A Man-Eater is Waiting…

Theatrical poster for 1980's Alligator

A baby alligator named Ramon is purchased at a roadside attraction and later unceremoniously flushed down the toilet. Twelve years later, Ramon is alive and well in the sewers, and he’s grown to epic proportions. And boy, is he hungry. Numerous house pets in the area have gone missing, and human limbs are being discovered at an alarming rate. Can homicide detective David Madison (Robert Forster) and reptile expert—and Ramon’s former owner—Dr. Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) stop this killer ‘gator before all hell busts loose? Spoiler alert: probably not.

Ramon busting out in 1980's Alligator

ALLIGATOR’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it takes itself seriously enough that it doesn’t become a joke. There are some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Madison and the doomed rookie cop Kelly are investigating the sewers by flashlight, but they are balanced out with a mellow sense of humor—there are sly pop cultural references to other famous sewer folk, such as Ed Norton from THE HONEYMOONERS and Henry Lime from THE THIRD MAN.  This is, after all, a movie about a giant alligator terrorizing a city, and so a certain level of goofiness is required. The premise is almost inherently ridiculous and the filmmakers know that, but the police procedural side of things manages to keep us grounded in some semblance of reality while solid characters, likable heroes, and a good script make it almost seem plausible…almost.

The special effects were pretty great for its time and budget, making good use of miniature sets and animatronics, depending on the situation. I’ve seen a lot worse in a lot more recent movies. Say what you will, but I can suspend disbelief a lot easier with good practical effects than I can with poor CGI.

ALLIGATOR is, of course, spun off from the persistent urban legend that alligators live in the sewers beneath major metropolitan areas, as a result of being flushed down the toilet precisely as shown here. It is, granted, primarily hokum, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable and ripe for exploration and exploitation. One has to wonder why the catalog of urban legends isn’t pilfered more often than it is for cinematic fare.

Critics are quick to call this a JAWS rip-off, just as they do with virtually every animal attack movie released between 1975 and 1985, but it’s an unfair assessment. Yes, both feature unusually large aquatic carnivores preying on the public, but those are superficial similarities. By those standards, JAWS is a rip-off of Moby Dick—there are similarities in theme and hints of inspiration, but that’s the evolutionary nature of art. One thing must always come before another. Horror films are no different.

The script was written by John Sayles, who had previously written PIRANHA, and the man’s other credits have already been covered on our review of that film. It was directed by Lewis Teague, whose filmography is spotty but quite interesting. He was a production manager on rock concert film WOODSTOCK (1970) but the first feature he directed was the uneven sex romp/crime drama DIRTY O’NEIL (1974), and he went on to direct THE LADY IN RED (1979) for Roger Corman (also scripted by Sayles); the citizens-on-patrol film FIGHTING BACK (1982); Stephen King adaptations CUJO (1983) and CAT’S EYE (1985); the romantic adventure sequel THE JEWEL OF THE NILE (1985); the unlikely buddy cop movie COLLISION COURSE (1989) with Pat Morita and Jay Leno; Charlie Sheen action film NAVY SEALS (1990); the made-for-TV movie THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: REUNION (1997); and the failed pilot movie JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA (1997). In various other capacities, he also worked on COCKFIGHTER (1974), CRAZY MAMA (1975), and DEATH RACE 2000 (1975),

Madison and Gutchell, as seen in 1980's Alligator

David Madison was played by the always-dependable Robert Forster, who has been in films of all shapes and sizes.  After a few supporting roles, he starred in the critical darling MEDIUM COOL (1969), and moved on from there to appear in the made-for-TV clone horror THE DARKER SIDE OF TERROR (1979); Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE (1979); Larry Cohen and William Lustig’s MANIAC COP 3: BADGE OF SILENCE (1993); the Blaxploitation-reborn flick ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996); Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997); the questionable remake PSYCHO (1998); and David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). He had a recurring role on the TV series HEROES, and appeared in the penultimate episode of BREAKING BAD.

Marissa was played by Robin Riker, who has done work on the stage, but whose screen career is comprised mostly of one-off appearances on television shows. She did, though, have significant roles on the sitcoms BROTHERS (1984-1989, for which she won an Ace Award) and GET A LIFE (1990-1992). She has appeared in the erotic thriller BODY CHEMISTRY II: VOICE OF A STRANGER (1992); the comedy-monster movie STEPMONSTER (1993); and the family-friendly fantasy DON’T LOOK UNDER THE BED (1999);  but she is probably best known for her role on soap opera THE BOLD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, from 2008-2010. She has recently published a non-fiction book entitled A Survivor’s Guide to Hollywood, which can be purchased at her website. She keeps two framed international versions of ALLIGATOR’s posters in her office, a reminder of where she got her cinematic start.

The villainous industrial magnate Slade was played by Dean Jagger, whose career dates back to the 1929 drama THE WOMAN FROM HELL, and he worked consistently until the start of the 1980s. Genre fans may recall him from Victor Halperin’s REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES (1936); Hammer Films’ X: THE UNKNOWN (1956); the muscle car thriller VANISHING POINT (1971); the alternate-earth sci-fi film THE STRANGER (1973); zombie horror film EVIL TOWN (1977); evil alien chiller END OF THE WORLD (1977); and Robert Clouse’s Bruce Lee mishmash THE GAME OF DEATH (1978). He died in 1991 as a result of heart disease.

Ramon eating a maid, as seen in 1980's Alligator

Ramon the alligator—that is, the 25-foot and 400 lb. foam rubber version of him—was donated to the University of Florida to be used as their mascot after the Gainesville premiere of the film. For two years, he was dragged across the field on a cart by cheerleaders, but then a “walking machine” was devised by a team of mechanical and engineering students that allowed it to self-propel. It appears that at some point Ramon was retired from use, though I have been unable to determine when, despite e-mails reaching out to the mascot coordinator at the University.

As is standard, ALLIGATOR was followed up with a (belated) sequel, ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION (1991), which is much maligned, even by steadfast fans of the original. What is not so standard, though, is the board game adaptation from Ideal in 1980, where players took turns either adding items to, or taking items out of, the alligator’s mouth (depending on where the spinner landed), and hoping its jaws didn’t snap shut on your hand.

Sounds like fun for the whole family.

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