Synopsis: A police officer and a reptile expert track an enormous, ravenous, man-eating alligator attacking residents after escaping from the city’s sewers.
Stars: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael V. Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Sydney Lassick, Jack Carter, Perry Lang, Henry Silva, Bart Braverman, John Lisbon Wood, Angel Tompkins, Sue Lyon, Royce D. Applegate
Director: Lewis Teague
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Certain movies leave indelible images seared into your brain from an early age, scenes that live on in your imagination (or nightmares) for years. Over time, they can take on a life of their own, becoming almost their own mini-movies in your head as you replay them on a loop, either trying to make sense of them or attempting to exorcise their hold over you. Horror fans will frequently discuss the movie that has stayed with them the longest or has haunted them for enough time to seek out more terror tales to combat that singular experience that changed them forever. It’s a tiny psych-trick way to take away some of the power a scary movie has over us.
You’d think for as many titles in the horror genre I’ve seen since perusing the VHS aisles of our mom-and-pop video store that a grisly low-budget slasher film would be my Big Nasty, some disgusting piece of trash I was unlucky to stumble across when I thought I’d checked out a run of the mill slice and dice. No, I’m too classy to fall for that garbage. To this day, I still have a fear (a real, genuine fear) of alligators and crocodiles thanks to the 1980 classic creature feature, Alligator. And while the movie has its fair share of thrills and chills, there’s one moment that continues to stand out as horrifyingly nightmare-inducing to this day.
By 1980, the swath of Jaws imitators was in full swing. Killer bears (1976’s Grizzly), killer whales (1977’s Orca), killer octopi (1977’s Tentacles), and killer fish (1978’s Piranha) had found their way to the screen with a modicum of respect thanks to the involvement of star names and directors. The release of 1978’s commercially successful Jaws 2 only added more fuel to the fire. Alligator came in hot with a well-tuned script from Piranha screenwriter John Sayles (who would go on to adapt the novel The Howling for the screen in 1981), a fresh-faced director (Lewis Teague, soon to direct Cat’s Eye and Cujo), and star Robert Forster.
Wisely, Sayles based his script on a long-held urban legend of alligators that grew to an incredible size and lived in the sewers, the result of being flushed down the toilet after initially being kept as pets. Preying on a fear that already existed in the public consciousness gave the filmmakers a place to start from, and adding a smarmy pharmaceutical company dumping dead pets injected with growth hormones into the sewer that our gator would snack on provided the set-up an extra boost of B-movie madness.
Forster (London Has Fallen) plays Detective Madison, who is assigned to investigate several body parts showing up in Chicago’s water treatment center. This leads him to the suspicious death of a pet store owner and to a herpetologist (Robin Riker), who determines that a giant alligator is responsible for all the deaths. When the two locate the massive creature in the sewers beneath the city, the reptile decides to make his above-ground debut, breaking out and rampaging through the Windy City, chomping up citizens and evading capture.
While the alligator runs amok, the scene that has given me nightmares for years happens. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you because you have to experience it for yourself. I’ll give you two words: Diving. Board. It’s the kind of movie moment that could happen in 1980 that I don’t know if they could get away with now. I’m sure an image from this sequence was on the back of the box, and any time we rented the movie (and of course, I asked to rent it often), I would avoid looking at the box at all costs, lest I get scared and change my mind at the last minute.
With its practical effects, good performances, and brisk pacing, Alligator remains a classic in the creature feature horror genre for a reason. It transcends being a mere Jaws rip-off and works as its own entity because it doesn’t follow a standard formula to get where it needs to go. There is a self-deprecation to Sayles’ dialogue that isn’t quite meta but also is very aware that it can find humor in a humorless situation. Teague’s direction is efficient, and he knows he can’t quite do the Spielberg trick of keeping the show’s star under wraps for too long. When the alligator does show up, its attacks are ruthless, brutal, and often very frightening. For a film over forty years old, Alligator maintaining its level of suspense for most of its 91 minutes is a marvel.