I love an intricate story. Movies that painstakingly set up your expectations only to cleverly swerve into mysterious new directions can be exciting and innovative. I’m thrilled by a good surprise or a smart twist. Those movies can require a big investment of attention, though. They can be a little exhausting. Sometimes you just want a movie about a big alligator that eats jerks. Lucky for you, 1980’s ALLIGATOR gives you just that.
After a heartless dad flushes his daughter's live pet down the toilet, Ramon the baby alligator is left to wander the lonely sewers of Chicago. Twelve years on, Ramon has grown into quite the big boy, thanks to a steady diet of hormone filled dog corpses that the crooked pharmaceutical company dumps into his tunnels. When sewer workers start getting fished out in bits and pieces, homicide detective David Madison (Robert Forster) is brought in to get to the bottom of things. His first trip into the sewer yields revealing clues in the form of his partner being eaten by Ramon. No one believes his story, not his gravel voiced boss (Michael Gazzo), not the press, and especially not the crooked Mayor (Jack Carter), at least until Ramon bursts up through the sidewalk and starts gobbling up people left and right. When David fails to locate Ramon quickly enough, the Mayor fires him and brings in smug, racist big game hunter, Col. Brock (Henry Silva) to get the job done—which he does, as long as the job was to feed the alligator. It’s up to David and perky herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) to stop the oversized beast’s reign of terror, after it gobbles up every deserving victim in town.
ALLIGATOR is another proud contender in the beloved sub-genre of JAWS rip-offs, where an assortment of deadly shark substitutes are inserted into the same basic plot. Other vicious variants include smaller fish (PIRANHA), larger fish (ORCA – okay, not really a fish), bears (GRIZZLY), and cars (THE CAR). They are fun because they all try to shoehorn some of the JAWS staples (dismissive city officials, cynical hunter, disastrous community celebration, etc.) into sometimes wildly inappropriate settings, but each one has its own unique flavor. ALLIGATOR moves the action straight to the mean streets of Chicago (actually Los Angeles).
One of the best things about this version is the lead actor, Robert Forster, playing the Chief Brody role. Forster is always a pleasure to watch. He brings friendly, blue collar charm to all his characters, from his leading man days of the ‘70’s and ‘80s, up to his later supporting roles, like JACKIE BROWN. His depiction of detective David is perfect for the tone of the movie, with enough dry humor to make him fun, but not enough to turn the whole thing into a joke. He can make self-deprecating jokes (there’s a running gag about his receding hairline) without coming off like a sad sack. He is manly enough to be a tough guy, but sensitive enough to have a sweet relationship with Marisa (the lady version of Hooper, though thankfully not a lady version of Richard Dreyfuss).
The other great thing about ALLIGATOR is the refreshingly straightforward script. Written by genre scribe extraordinaire, John Sayles, the story unselfconsciously delivers the goods. If a character is shady, he is guaranteed to die violently and usually as a direct result of his own actions. Wondering what happened to that little girl whose dad flushed Ramon down the drain 12 year ago? Yep, it’s Marisa the gator scientist. She even mentioned that she had a baby alligator when she was a kid. If someone makes a passing comment about methane pockets in the sewer tunnels, you can be damn sure it comes up later in a big way. This script does not have time for clever connections or sly twists. It’s the anti-Shyamalan.
I really appreciate the hardline stance the movie takes on jerks. The closest it comes to being subtle is the shifty pet shop owner played by Sydney Lassick. He seems harmless enough, but there is something a little off about him (because he’s Sydney Lassick). Soon enough, he’s out pet napping pooches to sell as test subjects to Helms (James Ingersoll), the despicable pharmaceutical scientist who is so evil, he only experiments on puppies. The pet shop owner meets his toothy end while disposing of hormonally altered dog corpses in the sewer, which is the reason Ramon grew so large in the first place. The only part of the body left to find is his leg, still wearing an alligator leather shoe. Double irony!
The next deserving victim is the sleazy journalist, Kemp (Bart Braverman), who goes out of his way to bring up David’s traumatic past (ha ha, you got your partner killed!) in every news story. He sneaks onto crime scenes, stages photos, and slathers the movie with a thick layer of smarm whenever he’s on camera. Kemp is exactly what President Trump thinks all reporters who don’t work for Fox News are like. I’ll bet he has the clip of a screaming Kemp being devoured playing on a loop on his phone during every press conference. Just kidding! Trump doesn’t give press conferences.
The gator doesn’t dine exclusively on assholes, though. Kelly (Perry Lang), the fresh faced rookie who volunteers to fish around in the tunnels with David, gets gobbled up pretty quick (not helping David’s reputation of being hard on partners). The many nameless cops and civilians who fall prey to Ramon couldn't have been all bad. There is even a cute little kid who gets pushed into a pool where the man-eater is chilling and disappears in a cloud of red. JAWS rip-offs are classically merciless on adorable moppets.
That said, Ramon eats a lot of assholes. The bigger they are, the more satisfying their death scene. They don’t come much bigger than the legendary big game hunter, Brock. He’s equivalent to the Quint character, minus any redeeming qualities. Henry Silva always had a talent for playing reprehensible folk, and he really takes it up a notch with Brock. He actually breaks up the standard JAWS trifecta of Lawman/Scientist/Hunter because the Hunter is so obnoxious that the Lawman and Scientist don’t want anything to do with him. Not only is Brock arrogant, sexist, and lecherous, he is super racist. In one scene, he hires a few African Americans from the neighborhood to be his bearers, literally to carry all his shit. The motherfucker even calls them “natives”. However much money the Mayor coughed up for this guy’s services, he seriously overpaid. Brock tracks Ramon into an alley, but is completely surprised when the giant bursts out from under a huge trash pile and chomps down on his ass. Some great white hunter he turned out to be. I hope his bearers got paid in advance.
The cherry on top of the carnage pie, though, is the outdoor wedding. It is the perfect storm of scumbags. After discussing their illegal business dealings, Slade (Dean Jagger), the greedy, amoral head of the pharmaceutical company, invites the Mayor to his daughter’s wedding. Slade introduces him to his soon to be son-in-law, who turns out to be—wait for it—Helms, the despicable head scientist who started the whole mess to begin with.
Naturally, Ramon is instinctively drawn to this literal buffet of bastards like a hipster to mustache wax. What follows is an orgy of well-deserved death. Helms gets thoroughly chewed up (he is not getting that tuxedo deposit back), the Mayor is torn into while pleading to be let into Slade’s limo, and Ramon flattens the old man’s car with him inside. Several incidental party guests get taken out as well, but given that they were there at Slade’s invitation, they couldn’t be all that innocent. At least the bride makes it out alive, and is left weeping over the loss of her douchebag groom. Trust me, lady, you dodged a bullet there. You should be thanking the alligator.
This movie just goes to show you don’t need an elaborate plot or a unique concept to make an incredibly entertaining movie. The fact that Sayles struck gold a second time using the same basic premise a couple of years later with PIRANHA is further proof. All that is really needed is a director with a steady hand, (Corman vet Lewis Teague, in this case), a snappy script, and a few charismatic (or quirky) leads. Oh, and never underestimate the appeal of comeuppance. Mean people don’t always get what they deserve in real life, but in the movies, karma is an enormous, sharp-toothed bitch.