Rixflix A to Z: Alligator (1980)

Director: Lewis Teague // 1:29; Color
Crew Notables: John Sayles (screenplay and co-story)
Cast Notables: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Dean Jagger, Sydney Lassick, Jack Carter, Michael V. Gazzo, Perry Lang, Henry Silva, Royce D. Applegate, Mike Mazurki
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

There are people out there for whom all "nature run amok" films are one and the same: all silly, all stupid, all immense wastes of time. This same logic will often be applied to practically any sub-genre of science-fiction, horror, fantasy or disaster films in equal measure, with the severity of cynicism wavering depending on personal preference, or more often, distaste. I am not making this statement to put myself above these type of people. Quite the opposite, for I actually am not all that interested in the "nature run amok" sub-genre.

Swarms of bees and waves of killer rats or spiders have never frightened me and cause little more than a big yawn from me when perpetrated onscreen. If the monster or animal has been made giant or enraged (or both) by some purposeful scientific means, well, I will probably be a little more interested, but then the film often crosses more into the "mad science" area, rather than nature just evolving or going crazy. This does not mean that there aren't fine examples of the sub-genre, and this is where one must not lock oneself into a steadfast position on an entire type of film: Jaws, one of my favorite films ever, and widely acclaimed as perhaps the pinnacle of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, is also the prime example of "nature run amok" onscreen. So, if you are going to roll your eyes in world-weariness every time some giant beast starts attacking people in a movie trailer, then either you also don't like Jaws, or you have clearly forgotten (or never learned) that in any genre or sub-genre of film, there are good examples and there are bad examples.

Alligator is one of those good examples. Even as a very clear "rip-off" (a term that I dislike hugely) of the famous shark flick, Alligator sprung from an incredible string of terrific low-budget scripts by then up-and-coming future director John Sayles, scripts which included Piranha (itself also a Jaws nod), The Howling and Battle Beyond the Stars. Sayles' writing for his own films would, of course, be concerned generally with higher-brow fare, but in the late 70s-early 80s he was allowed to let his freak flag fly, revealing a sensibility not only attuned to genre filmmaking and the clichés that make and break it, but also in finding ways to make those clichés somehow new again. Steadied by a solid and engaging lead performance by the vastly underrated Robert Forster (who would eventually get an Oscar nomination in Tarantino's Jackie Brown), Alligator never tries to be more than what it seems to be, but coats the expected antics in a healthy sheen of humor, though one has to get in a little ways before that humor really hits home. When it does, the laughs come fast and furious, though the film never gets "jokey" -- it is more active wit on display than actual punchlines. And for the most part, unlike in a lot of lower-budget monster flicks, the alligator action is surprisingly well-done and scarily effective at times. And man, Henry Silva's self-deprecating role is a gut-buster... literally.

I had to get the Korean DVD of this flick to once again feel the thrill I felt in the early video store days when I took this film home and discovered a bloody, gory good time. Some films, when you haven't seen them for a long time, don't hold up so well with the perspective of time and knowledge, while some, no matter what they might be about, feel like old friends who have been gone too long. Alligator, as it turns out, was one of my missing old friends. And it knows that it's silly, it knows that at heart its concept is stupid, but in no way is a waste of time.

And besides, without this film, how else would you know whether Harry Lime is alive or not?


EggOfTheDead said…
My brain cells are firing through a sludge of phlegm right now so I've gotta ask: Where's the Harry Lime reference in Alligator?!

I second your opinion that Alligator actually, sorta, works - I enjoy it! - while most of the sub-genre has a made-for-TV, lazy reliance on the scare factor of the critter/s alone which can't carry a 90-minute film.

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