A.J.’s Big ’80s Horrorthon #5: “Alligator” (1980)
by A.J. Hakari
I wish more B-movies had the same initiative as Alligator. A lot of these titles exist solely as product, and as such, the folks who made and appear in them tend to treat doing so with all the enthusiasm of a chain gang. But Alligator is a bit more than just your average post-Jaws take-off trying to make some other huge animal into the next creature feature sensation. Its cast and creators know what a big silly mess it is and help make the time go faster with intentionally humorous flourishes and a comically-hardassed attitude. It may not always work, but at least the people in Alligator don’t look like they mind being there.
That old wives tale about the pet alligator flushed down a toilet and thriving in the sewers below has been around for years, but darn it, this time it’s come true. A little girl’s baby gator is given a “burial at sea” by her angry father, but twelve years and many genetically-enhanced lab animals for dinner later, the thing has grown to an unthinkable size…and it wants out. It’s not long before the overgrown reptile escapes to the surface to feast upon cops, kids, and yuppies alike, forcing a perpetually hard-boiled cop (Robert Forster) and a herpetologist (Robin Riker) to think fast for a way to kill the seemingly unkillable.
From the start, it’s clear that frightening viewers to their cores isn’t at the top of Alligator‘s to-do list. That’s not to say it never gets dark or serious (the gator does snack on a kid in one pretty bleak scene), but amusing little touches added throughout help mold a sort of carnival thrill ride persona. There’s mention of a dead sewer worker named Ed Norton, a newspaper montage flashes the Daily Bugle’s front page, and Forster’s very performance embodies just about every grizzled cop cliche in the book. Then there’s the eponymous beastie, who, taking another cue from Jaws, is only seen in quick cutaway shots or as a normal-sized gator traipsing around on tiny sets. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to find something here that doesn’t get a few chuckles out of you.
Unfortunately, Alligator can’t sustain its sublime cheesiness all the time. Many of the jokes are dead on delivery and make for a lot of dull, lifeless exchanges (screenwriter John Sayles had better luck combining horror with gallows humor the following year, in a little something called The Howling). But there are enough self-aware nods in Alligator to fuel a night in with your pals; if Henry Silva croaking out gator mating calls doesn’t entertain you, nothing will.