And so we come to the end of Movie Monthly’s celebration of Shark Week, Sharknado 3, and the Jaws 40th Anniversary with our Terrors From The Deep series with a look at the 1980 horror comedy Alligator. Alligator is an odd flick in more ways than one. The film came out at the tail end of the post Jaws creature feature boom, coming out 5 years after Jaws already made everyone afraid to go in the water. As such Alligator takes a very different approach to animal horror than a lot of the other Jaws knock-offs like Orca. The first major difference is that Alligator is actually a land locked horror film but more than that the movie is grounded in a much goofier premise that kind of informs the odd mix of anger and levity that informs the film overall.
The basic premise of Alligator is that 12 years in the past, a young girl’s parents flushed her pet baby alligator down the toilet. Rather than dying on the ride or in the sewers the alligator somehow survived and grew to gargantuan size off the strange toxic wastes being dumped into the sewers by a nearby business. Now, the alligator has emerged from the depths beneath Chicago to exact brutal, animalistic vengeance on the forces that made it along with pretty much anyone else it encounters along the way.
In case it wasn’t clear from that description Alligator is basically a revenge film with the main theme being about caring for your pets and not experimenting on animals. This actually makes Alligator strangely indicative of things to come for the schlock horror genre over the course of the ‘80s. During the ‘70s junky low-rent horror was intrinsically wedded to sleazy exploitation cinema with a major bent towards erotica. This didn’t leave the genre as divorced from the cultural psyche as it was in the fallow years of the ‘60s but it was left without much legitimate meaning. ‘70s Drive-In and Exploitation junk horror was meaningful if only because it usually emphasized characters you didn’t see lead roles like women and people of color. I grant it didn’t do these things well but the bigger deal was that it lead by example, which is why so much of Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez’s canon tends to focus on non-white male heroes like Django, the Bride, Jackie Brown, or Machete.
Then in the ‘80s this dynamic took a shift as the arena of junkie low budget horror shifted from the drive-in to the video store and the rise of Troma pictures. Troma made it big in 1984 with the Toxic Avenger a slasher/superhero/scifi adventure flick that actually had a passionately earnest if also ham fisted environmental message behind it. This was the same year the developing under ground cultural of the ‘80s really solidified as seen through another 1984 classic Repo Man. Thanks to the standard Toxic Avenger set the template for a lot of ‘80s schlock going forward sporting a more cogent and conscious undertone in exchange for ‘70s schlock’s push towards diverse representation.
Alligator predates all this and was a studio release but being aware of what came after it, it’s hard not to see the resonance the film had 4 years down the line. The movie itself is okay, not a masterpiece but fun for what it is elevated by the impressive sincerity of its message. A lot like Toxic Avenger the film overcomes a lot of its structural issues through a sense of genuine anger and passion over its subject matter. You get the sense this is a movie mad by people who are legitimately furious about the mistreatment of animals whether it be in lab experiments or the pet industry. So whenever the titular alligator is allowed to just cut loose and devour its way through the animal abusing scum of Chicago Alligator is an absolute riot to enjoy.
This is also helped by the amazing practical effects work on hand. For a lot of the close up shots where the alligator attacks people there’s an animatronic head to chomp down on prospective victims. The film is punctuated though by a mid movie effects sequence where the alligator literally bursts out of the concrete to prowl the streets of Chicago. The scene was accomplished using a miniature set of the Chicago Street and then having a real live alligator go wild on it. It’s a spectacular looking sequence that really highlights how good practical effects can be.
The downside to the film is in the structure and, especially, in the human characters. Our hero is an ex-St. Louis detective transferred to Chicago after the death of his partner named David Madison, who is played by Robert Forster who you kind of remember from that old movie you saw on TV once in a hotel. Forster gives the performance a gritty everyman feel but there isn’t enough talent in the world to make Madison compelling or engaging. His character is a bundle of police clichés stabled onto a boring body and the movie gets infinitely less interesting whenever the alligator isn’t on screen.
I’m not sure Alligator is a great film especially considering recent revisitations of the ‘80s schlock genre like Hobo With A Shotgun or pet revenge films like White God exist and accomplish the same goal but with a lot more technical skill. Still when the movie works it works very well and the alligator itself is a marvel to behold. Additionally the creature feature genre is something of a fallow one so enjoyable but flawed movies like Alligator get a lot more millage within this cinematic niche, I recommend checking it out if you’re in the mood for a good animal attack film.