Alligator (1980)

Special Thanks to Christian for this recommendation, you all owe it to yourselves to check the QT series he’s currently running on his blog.

The movies bring us beautiful women on a weekly basis, but there’s a scary, plastic Stepford quality to many of them nowadays that can be a bit of a turn-off, particularly for your traditional pasty, movie-going nerd who makes little in the way of actual money. These women are beautiful in that pre-planned way, seemingly more likely to ask for a resume than a drink. You may dream of them carnally (our principles, after all, only go so far) but they probably don’t inhabit your fulfilling, fanciful, dreams of companionship and romance. You don’t want to solve a mystery with most of these new girls. You don’t want to build a clubhouse or play under the covers with most of these new girls. And you most certainly don’t want to chase a giant runaway mutant alligator with these new girls.

In 1980, the girls of the not quite taken seriously genres seemed rougher, sexier, more mysterious and more human. These girls would most assuredly pass the entrance gate of your most intimate dreams too, but would be equally at home wielding a two by four or a pistol or drinking you under the table at your favorite bar. They could, needless to say, also contend with that big alligator that seems to keep intruding on our vague discussion of sexy girls.

Sorry, you probably care about the alligator, but it’s a mark of the appeal of John Sayles’ and Lewis Teague’s Alligator that I care more about the beautiful, almost convincingly nerdy, alligator expert Marisa Kendell, played by Robin Riker. The girl in horror movies normally functions as anesthetic for the boring exposition that normally eats up half of the film, but I actually liked Kendall, and you know from the moment she enters the picture that she’s the little girl in the opening whose pet is now a Jaws imitation, eating people sleazy or dumb enough to enter a sewer drain that looks like the Castle of Dr. Frankenstein if it was renovated and re-opened a few months later as an S&M dungeon. That she wanted a pet alligator is charm enough, that said alligator inspired her line of work is positively bewitching.

Riker is actually the sidekick here, the hero proper is Robert Forster’s David Madison, a rough and tumble, gruff, balding, instinctual guy who might not be the brightest bulb on the force (he needs Riker’s gator expert to underline things that your average four year old could grasp) but he makes up for it in lack of pretense and pure, no bullshit goodness. Forster, as he did in Jackie Brown years later, is one of the most laid back, appealing cops the movies have given us. He’s mournful and self-loathing, but it’s not the self-loathing of the manipulative, self-congratulatory 1980s cop variety. This guy has average guy issues and Riker, a closet nerd, sees that and goes to bed with him, and we believe it. Their scenes, while brief, have an off the cuff charm that many Oscar pictures could use. Forster gets Riker in his apartment and confesses that he thought she was a real tight-ass. Riker says she took one look at him and figured he’d have an apartment just like the one she currently, unexpectedly, finds herself in.

Ladies who read Bowen’s Cinematic (I’ve counted at least two): this is what men want, at least this is what the men you should want want: a dialed down bust your balls sass that really translates as true affection. Do Riker and Forster fall in love? Of course not. They have something that will probably age better and bring them more retrospective pleasure: a brief, sugary acknowledgement: a respite from cuffing perps and bagging gators.

John Sayles, the horror movies want you back. The horror movies need your gift for off the wall flakery, for airy parody that turns toward violence with unsettling ease. The horror movies need your gift for characters that you actually give a damn about despite the flimsiest of shadings. The well-intentioned but increasingly boring social conscience pictures are fine without you. Drop that genre and any fifty directors will happily be there to pick up the slack in the morning.

But I don’t want to discount director Lewis Teague. He doesn’t imbue Alligator with the erotic charge that Joe Dante brought to Sayles’ The Howling, but, truthfully, he probably doesn’t need to. Alligator is a blunter affair, a romping, stomping creature feature knock-off/spoof that was already exhibiting Sayles’ patent distrust of politicians of all sizes. Sayles’ bad guys here, including an amusingly sleazy Dean Jagger, are only slightly less subtle than his Dickie Pilager of Silver City. The rage that clearly drives Jagger’s death scene almost overwhelms the picture; the alligator, for a moment, isn’t an alligator, but a vengeful demon, crushing Jagger in his own cocoon of self-absorbed privilege. Teague keeps the picture and the gator moving, cutting the moments of violence into necessarily (for the budget) brief nuggets of chaos that prove that Teague and Sayles were hip to more in Jaws than just the giant critter. And bonus points to these gentlemen for the perverse explanation for the alligator’s enormity.

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