Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - ALLIGATOR

Robert Forster battles a gator, gets the girl, and deals with his balding problem - what's not to love?

One of the reasons I always champion repertory screenings is because most of the people I am addressing (on social media, that is) are more or less my age and thus, like me, were too young to see some of these movies on the big screen, if they were even alive at all. It's worth the occasional "Why would I go to that when I have the DVD at home?" response and subsequent anger I feel when seeing that attitude, because these screenings aren't exactly on everyone's radar the way the new releases of superhero and animated films are - I myself have missed several simply because I didn't know about them until it was too late. So if just one pal gets to see a cherished movie from his youth on a big screen (preferably on 35mm), it more than makes up for whatever dumb responses I might get from people who don't get it.

And that's not generalizing: you really just don't get it if you think going to see a movie you own is a complete waste of time, and you can't even point at cell phone users, really. For the most part, repertory audiences tend to behave themselves (at least, if the theater generally enforces good behavior on a regular basis), because they genuinely want to be there - they're paying for that "movie they have at home", so clearly they've understood the appeal and show the film the respect it deserves. There are, of course, exceptions, but on average, I find more genuinely appreciative crowds at repertory screenings than I do at normal new releases. And even if there ARE a couple idiots, the pros outweigh the cons - you can and should take any opportunity to attend a theatrical showing of a movie you really like but have only seen at home.

Which brings us to Alligator

I saw Alligator for the first time in August of 2008, when I had really hit my groove for Horror Movie A Day and had seen enough bad movies for those good ones to really start popping (had I seen it closer to the end of the site's run, I may have declared it the single greatest achievement in motion picture history, out of comparison). At the time, I gave it one of the highest honors I could bestow upon a film I rented for the site - I went out and bought it after. Granted, the script was written by John Sayles, so it was obviously going to be better than your average Jaws knockoff (even more impressive considering Sayles had already gone to that well with Piranha), but even in the annals of "Better than the usual Jaws wannabe" movies, it rises even above those in many ways. And while I recognized many of them the first time around, it wasn't until this theatrical screening that I really zeroed in on what makes the movie so damn good - the supporting cast.

When the movie finished and I waited for the second feature (Dark Age, an Australian killer croc movie) to start, I tweeted about how every character in Alligator deserves their own movie, and I stand by that - there isn't a single UNinteresting person in the film. The movie is so rich with interesting folks that guys like Sydney Lassick - a scene stealer if there ever was one - gets offed in the first 10-15 minutes and you'll never complain, because he's replaced by so many others of equal value. It gets to the point where even an anonymous background extra seems to have more going on than the primary characters in anything that's "inspired" by Jaws that the likes of Syfy and the Asylum churn out on a weekly basis (Hollywood has pretty much abandoned the killer animal/fish genre - if I'm not mistaken, Shark Night 3D was the last in wide release, nearly five years ago). I'm not exaggerating - there's a guy on a walker who pauses to watch our heroes climb out of a manhole near the film's ending, puzzled look on his face, and it was a. something that I never noticed before and b. an example of how Sayles and director Lewis Teague really fleshed out the little world of this movie, to the extent that they even made sure a background extra had a bit of personality.

But it's all the "throwaway" characters that really delight me. Leading lady Robin Riker mentions a couple of times that she lives with her mother, and it's not like you're really expecting to see the woman or think much of her when you do, but when she shows up, chewing hero Robert Forster's ear off while they wait for Riker to come downstairs, you almost wish she'd join them for the rest of the ride. Ditto for Henry Silva, as the eccentric big game hunter who makes alligator mating noises and bribes some black street punks with beer to be his guide through the city (they're also movie-worthy, of course). And I could easily watch an entire twelve season series about a police precinct run by Michael V. Gazzo's character, who seems incapable of speaking in a normal voice and instead delivers each and every line with an exasperated shout, even if he's the most laidback commanding officer ever. When he goes through the obligatory scene where he takes Forster off the force for rocking the boat too much, he just said "I need your shield" (not his piece) and walks off without actually having Forster hand it over. Guess he believes in the honor system. Also, if you're a fan of Sue Lyon of Lolita fame, soak in her final screen performance as a reporter interviewing Silva.

Then again, even if all of the supporting players were forgettable, the movie would still coast (more than that, actually) on the strength of Forster's David Madison. He's got some cliche cop hero traits, like a tendency to lose partners (and the aforementioned "you're off the force!" bit), but it's not like you get to see this great actor as the lead character in a lot of movies, and he gives the role a lot more dimension than you'd expect from these things. His tragic backstory would have been pretty much it in anyone else's hands, but he's got a fondness for dogs, a nicely decorated apartment, and a recurring gag about his thinning hair (one that's even funnier if you consider his Jackie Brown character - easy to think about when you're at the New Beverly) that helps round him out. And Sayles isn't afraid to make him look like an asshole at times; his "Don't understand me too quick" is a pretty harsh moment between him and Riker, balanced only by his incredible apology later: "You're the country's leading herpetologist, you have a wonderful mind, a doctorate degree, and beautiful tits!" (remember this is 1980, so movie characters could still say things like this without being vilified). There's an almost teenaged puppy love quality to their relationship (enhanced by the fact that she still lives with her mom) that I found very endearing, same as I did for Forster's owning of his grouchy attitude. With most giant animal movies that aren't directed by Steven Spielberg, I dread most moments that don't feature the title creature, but here I could happily just spend 90 minutes hanging out with these two going on dates, buying groceries, whatever.

That said, the gator scenes are also quite good, with some forced perspective work that holds up well (certainly more than the occasional miniature shot) and - as Sayles points out on the DVD - the bonus fact that alligators don't move much. Letting their gator sit there (meaning: no puppet work that might show the blemishes) is actually correct, and it gives the big lug an almost silent slasher kind of feel in a couple moments, silently watching his prey and waiting for the right moment to snap. His "journey" is also paced well, getting free from the sewer at the almost exact halfway mark, so get a perfect blend of folks going into the sewer and trying to find him (i.e. more suspenseful stuff) and trailer-ready carnage as he chomps his way through the city. Like Jaws 4, he has a specific target - the head of the medical lab (Dean Jagger, another great actor embellishing a generic role) that inadvertently turned the little baby gator (flushed down a toilet in the opening sequence) into a rampaging beast. Sure, he snacks along the way in scenes both rousing (eating the leg of the world's least effective patrolman) and kind of horrifying (waiting in a swimming pool and devouring a kid who was pushed into it), but it's at Jagger's daughter's wedding that he really cuts loose, using his mouth AND tail to rack up the body count as Forster and Riker race to stop him. And yes, just them - Silva (spoiler) had already been eaten at this point.  In fact, Silva and Forster share only a single scene together, keeping Jaws comparisons at bay - our "Quint" is off on his own and "Brody and Hooper" are a couple - it's easy to forget that the movie probably began life as "Jaws but with an alligator."

It's also easy to forget that the movie was supposed to be set in Missouri (or Chicago? Everything in the movie points to MO but Teague says it's Chicago on the commentary), as it was shot in Los Angeles and often resembles the city more than movies that are actually supposed to be set there. Even if you aren't privy to specific areas, the palm trees are a dead giveaway, and I think by now everyone recognizes the LA "River", the primarily water-free runway that runs throughout the city and has been used in dozens of movies, including Grease, T2, and (most relevant to this) Them, the 1950's giant ant movie. It's a shame we didn't get much of "Ramon" (the name given to the baby gator, pre-flushing) making his way up one of its slanted sides to make his escape (he bursts through a manhole to get free), but it was still fun to see the location in use, tipping its hat to Them and reminding me about how weird it is that our "river" is almost always bone dry enough for film crews to shoot it so often.

Another thing that propped the movie up high above so many others is how the plot actually took some turns you wouldn't expect, especially if you've seen a bunch of these things. For example, there's a reporter who clearly has it in for Forster's character, and as soon as he's introduced you get the feeling he'll be a thorn in his side throughout the movie and get his just desserts near the ending. But no! He's offed at the end of the first act, and then they pull the rug out from under you again, briefly toying with the idea that Forster might be accused of killing the guy before letting him off the hook with proof of the gator's existence (the reporter snapped a few pics as he was being eaten - nice of him!). Sayles and Teague are happy to give the IMPRESSION of a generic monster movie, but they went about it fairly smartly throughout, and never lost sight of their characters, something that has been the undoing of more Jaws knockoffs (and sequels, even) than I care to recall. I mean, the climax adds suspense by trapping Forster near the bomb, but not because the gator is blocking his exit or something - it's because an old lady has parked over the manhole he needs to use to escape. That's just gold, right there.

Long story short, the movie is just so damn fun, and it was a blast to see on the big screen. I had forgotten about some scenes (the kid in the pool, for example - though it was nowhere near as horrifying as the obligatory "the monster eats a kid" moment in Dark Age), but it didn't take long for me to remember why I liked it so much when I first saw it: it's got so much damn charm. Plus my friend had never seen it, and it's always fun to "introduce" a movie to someone (if they like it, that is), especially in such a proper setting. Sure, those miniature effects look even sillier when magnified, but we laughed WITH the movie, not AT it, which is an important distinction. And it made me really regret not including it in my book, because I thought it was a bigger hit than it was so left it out of consideration per my "no hits" rule only to discover it was hardly a smash (its grosses aren't even on IMDb or BoxOfficeMojo, which means they can't be very high). But on the flipside, that means I'm not sick of talking about it, and wrote this Crypt hoping you Alligator virgins, who may have been swayed away by Roger Ebert's incredibly off-base review (among his other errors, he inexplicably assumed the movie was set in New York), to give it a look. The DVD is seemingly out of print, but hopefully it's just temporary - perhaps they're readying a Blu-ray? While you wait for the cost to come down, check out some Syfy monster movies if you're not exactly a connoisseur of such things, if only to even more fully appreciate how good this one is when you get the chance to see it for yourself.