Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, released in 1975, left more than blood and several bad sequels in its wake. The idea of hiding a practically unstoppable killing machine from the audience as it snacks its way through a long list of extras before meeting its demise inspired dozens of copycat films. Some of these copycats like Orca: The Killer Whale (1977) and Great White (1981) also took place in the water, while others took place in new locations like the forest (1976’s Grizzly) or outer space (1979’s Alien). 1980’s Alligator took the action to the sewers, the streets, and a wedding party.
In the first 30 seconds of Alligator we see a trainer at an alligator farm tourist trap get attacked and almost killed while performing in front of a live audience. A young girl named Marisa Kendall witnesses the attack and for some reason is inspired by it to get her own baby pet alligator. The following morning her belligerent father takes the alligator and flushes it down the toilet, sending it down into the depths of the Chicago sewer system. (While Wikipedia states that the movie takes place in Chicago, it was filmed in Los Angeles and there are hints that the movie takes place in Missouri.)
Later in the film we learn from the famous herpetologist Dr. Marissa Kendall (yes — the same person that originally owned the alligator) that alligators in captivity don’t typically grow to full size, and one living in the sewer would be even smaller than that. Unless of course the alligator was feasting on the carcasses of dead animals which were being injected with growth hormones by an unscrupulous medical company and tossed into the sewer. If that were to happen, you might just end up with a “30 to 40 foot long alligator” with an insatiable appetite… FOR BLOOD.
Alligator stars Robert Forster as officer David Madison. When random body parts begin showing up in waste management plants, officer Madison is convinced there’s a serial killer on the loose. Madison has a hard time convincing anyone to go check the sewers with him after the untimely death of his last partner, but eventually he persuades rookie officer Jim Kelly to join him, which leads to the untimely death of a new partner. Madison wakes up in the hospital, but neither Chief Clark nor sleazy reporter Thomas Kemp believe his story of a giant alligator. When Kemp decides to brave the sewers to see what he can find, he too joins Officer Kelly in the belly of the beast (literally), but not before snapping a few photos and leaving his camera behind. After the film is developed, Madison is vindicated and the hunt is on.
The comparisons to Jaws are unavoidable. A Jaws-like tune is played as we see the alligator (from a POV shot) stalking his victims. Apparently the filmmakers also had problems with their mechanical alligator. The mechanical stand in is used for shots where the gator chomps on his victims. Other times, a regular-sized alligator makes his way through miniature streets at night. The pre-CGI special effects may not seem that special today, but I found them to be a treat. Despite the lack of computer-aided special effects, there’s no lack of fire. I counted two car explosions, one boat explosion, and one alligator explosion.
After the arrival of big-game hunter Colonel Brock, I couldn’t help but notice how similar Lake Placid was to this film. Colonel Brock is played completely over the top. He’s not around long enough to dislike for too long. The first time Brock meets the alligator is also his last.
Eventually the alligator gets so big and so hungry and he literally busts up through a sidewalk and onto city streets, and that’s where the real fun begins. Along with Brock, the alligator gobbles up lots of innocent bystanders and at least one kid in a swimming pool. Eventually he ends up at the wedding party where he eats the mayor and several other socialites. In the end it’s up to Officer Madison to redeem himself and lead the alligator back down the sewers where the two of them must face off one last time, man to gator.
I don’t know that Alligator made me jump, but it did make me laugh. After discovering a few limbs floating in the sewage treatment plant, Madison comments that if he finds any more he’s “going to open a spare parts shop.” Later, after finding a dismembered arm, he notes they’ll need a small casket.
The film was written by John Sayles, who had just churned out Piranha two years prior, and directed by Lewis Teague, who also directed Cujo and Cat’s Eye. The film did well enough to warrant a sequel (Alligator 2), which bombed. Roger Ebert gave the original one star and suggested people flush the film itself down the sewer.
While not scary or particularly gory by today’s standards. Alligator is a fun romp through the sewers with a reptile whose only crime is that of being hungry.
(This review is a part of my month-long October 2014 A-Z Horror Reviews.)