Saturday, 7 August 2010

Alligator (1980)

Country: USA

By accident rather than design I seem to be watching quite a few ‘Revolt of Nature’ horror films of late, and this production from 1980 is easily one of the most enjoyable. The 1970’s was without doubt the pinnacle of this durable subgenre thanks in part to the commercial success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but also to a wider social consciousness about the ecological and environmental impact of industrial capitalist endeavour. These worries fed into a general culture beset by paranoia and the film industry was swift in capitalising on this trend. A number of animals and insects stepped up to the plate to challenge human supremacy - from bears in Grizzly (1976) and Prophecy (1979) to worms in Squirm (1976) to wasps in The Swarm (1978) and bees in…wait for it - The Bees (1978) mankind was not safe from a natural world hell bent on avenging a variety of abuses and claiming dominion of the earth. By the end of the decade the commercial steam was slowly running out of this subgenre due in no small part to the cheap rip offs produced in Italy that masqueraded as American productions. Alligator appeared at a time of diminishing returns but still possesses an energy and wit which is refreshing to this day.

The premise of Alligator is based entirely on urban myth - in this case that the sewers of major American cities contain giant alligators flushed down the toilet by consumers unfit or unwilling to deal with the rapacious reptile. This is an urban myth that addresses the madness of consumerism and fad purchases, but unfortunately the film opts to make little of this intriguing thematic subtext. The alligator who is named Ramon by the small child who obtains it grows to abnormal proportions due to a steady diet of domesticated pets which have been injected with an experimental growth hormone and dumped in the sewers. Ramon has thus far been abused by the forces of consumerim and the unethical capitalist enterprise of a large pharmaceutical company. He spends the remainder of the film punishing those who have placed him in this predicament. That Ramon is able to target those who are directly responsible for his genetic development is just one of a number of mindless (but nevertheless enjoyable) liberties taken by the writer John Sayles. The other includes the amazing ability Ramon possesses for evading the authorities and quietly slipping away after scenes of immense carnage. There is a child like glee though about the way Ramon indulges his own greed for human flesh by dining on a corrupt major and a hypocritical buisnessman. The film is totally clear on where its sympathies lie. Unfortunately a lot of the symbolic value of Ramon smashing up cars and shop fronts is lost amid clumsy plotting and a whole raft of superfluous characters that drift in and out of the film in order to justify the requisite clichés which Alligator strains under.

Lewis Teague’s direction is rarely inspirational and like his later horror films Cujo (1983) and Cat’s Eye (1985) is blandly realised. But the film does have one or two set pieces that lift it above the detritus. Ramon exploding through the concrete street is impressive, even if the beast is an unconvincing model. Ramon gate crashing a birthday party is a particular highlight, and it is a sequence in which many of the thematic and symbolic points of interest are distilled. Robert Forster is capable and fun as a dishevelled and down at heel cop desperately trying too atone for a partners death in the past, and a cameo by Henry Silva as a big game hunter provides much needed humour. These characters are clearly one dimensional stereotypes, but the actors are clearly enjoying the prospect of playing up to the conventions. The film has a tongue in cheek tone which is both admirable and invigorating, and the spatial potential of claustrophobic sewer systems with the ever present sound of dripping water adds a great deal of atmosphere to the piece. An enjoyable film which is able to transcend its limitations (poor model work, plot inconsistencies) to emerge as a minor classic in the ‘Revolt of Nature’ subgenre.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. I haven't seen this movie in 20 years. I actually felt bad for the alligator for being flushed like that. He should have eaten all those careless bastards! I really need to rewatch this one. Great review!

  2. Cheers Fred! - He pretty much does eat all those careless bastards I'm glad to say. This is a lot of fun, and well worth another watch.

  3. Blimey,this ones a blast from the past..remember watching this from behind the settee..a good film,i may have to track a copy down on Ebay now.. :)

  4. I haven't seen this one but the nature-strikes-back genre is usually fun so I'll be keeping a lookout for it.

  5. Im a HUGE Alligator fan, one of my favs in the Killer Animal sub-gen. I love the sillier approach given to the film, especially when it has a giant alligator attacking parties and cityscapes. Great call here again, Shaun!

  6. @ Paul - Good to see you here buddy, this one will go for next to nothing on Ebay, feel free to drop by more often.

    @ dfordoom - This is one the best nature-strikes-back film, it doesnt take itself seriously (unbelievably some of these films do) and has a wit and humour that is tasteful but never intrusive.

    @ Carl - In total agreement Carl. As you're such a huge fan I imagine you have seen ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION? - I havent seen this yet, but if you have, let us know what its like. I dont anticipate it matching the first one. I can only assume the tone of this film comes completely from the pen of John Sayles...because every other Lewis Teague film I've seen as been pretty humourless (with the exception of the James Woods segment of CAT'S EYE).

  7. If you aren't prejudiced against crocs, and haven't seen it already, I can highly recommend Rogue (2007). High-energy Australian flick with a mighty big crocodile in it. Cheers.

  8. Thanks for the comment Joem18b - I reviewed ROGUE on here a few months back and enjoyed it very much...feel free to check out the review.

  9. I think I might have it on :cough: CD somewhere, I will try to find it because I would love to see it as well, havent had the chance yet

  10. I'm still serious about trying to get through all your reviews at some point over the next few months. Afraid I haven't made much of a dent yet, but still I'll carry on to complete my quest, the quest for total film enlightenment!

    A fun, thoughtful write-up to a film I haven't seen. It doesn't surprise me the film is somewhat of a trailblazer, possessing of a wry wit and sense of humor. As I'm sure you know, John Sayles (who wrote the screenplay) is a celebrated auteur of American Independent Cinema (at least the kind that could be defined as "indie," not genre specific grindhouse or B-picture fare), especially during the movements fledgling years in the early to mid-80's. It was his voice, along with other filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartely, not to mention guy's like Joel and Eathan Coen, that when combined with the rise of Sundance and Miramax, helped to bring about that mini "golden era" in American Film that was the 90's.

    A real funny film he wrote and directed a few years after this is BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET. It's literally about what it says it's about: a "broth'a" from another planet crash landing in Harlem circa 1984. It's been years, but I thought it was a riot back when.

    Cheers, my friend.


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