Release Date: July 2nd, 1980 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Lewis Teague Actors: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Jack Carter, Henry Silva
fter witnessing an alligator wrangler slipping and getting bitten at a show, a young girl surprisingly still wants a baby critter of her own. Having the tiny alligator for only a short while, her father dumps it down the toilet, where it grows to an enormous size in the Missouri sewers. Twelve years later, detective David Madison (Robert Forster) begins investigating the cause of a severed human arm, found in the city’s combination sewage and drainage system. Local reporters jump to suspect a Jack the Ripper type of killer, but there’s not enough evidence to support a murder in the first place. When a second limb, a bloodied leg, is discovered in the murky waters, grumbling Chief Clark (Michael Gazzo) takes matters more seriously – giving Madison rookie assistant Jim Kelly (Perry Lang) to aid him in a search for more clues.
All the while, boorish pet storeowner Luke Gutchel (Sidney Lassick) has been collecting runaway animals to sell to crooked laboratory scientist Arthur Helms (James Ingersoll), for Slade Pharmaceutical’s inhumane hormone experiments. After choice dog corpses have been pumped full of drugs, Gutchel disposes of them down in the sewer, unwittingly providing the rapidly mutating alligator with the means to survive amidst noxious gasses and without proper food, sunlight, and an accommodatingly habituated environment. The scheming company’s leader has ties to the corrupt mayor (Jack Carter), which is particularly advantageous when it comes to an investigation into the rising body count and Madison’s unwavering suspicions. With the help of herpetologist Dr. Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) and an ineffectual SWAT team, Madison plans out the hunt for the massive, murderous man-eater.
“Alligator” is incredibly serious, which takes some of the fun out of the standard freak-of-nature monster movie premise. There’s practically no comic relief. Add to that the brief subplots of terrorism, the loss of a partner due to a questionable shooting, and the cruel abduction and testing on animals, and the film becomes much darker than it needs to be. Even background roles are ugly and aurally grating. A prime example exists with the peculiar, weird, gruff big game hunter Colonel Brock (Henry Silva), who is called in to handle the behemoth, as squadrons of policemen are evidently worthless. An unusual amount of time is utilized to create a believable backstory and origin for the lumbering deviation (as well as motives for its movements, behaviors, and territoriality), which correspondingly detracts from the potential for lighter material to even out the tone.
Close-ups of alligator eyes, low-to-the-ground reptile cams, delayed stalking, and moderate gore accompanies the slithering beast’s feedings (including the shocking plank-walking scene of a child tumbling into the gator’s cavernous chops). Compounding those effective techniques are numerous underground locations, which are creepy and nicely photographed (glimpses of the gargantuan reptile head in the background prove to be a particular treat). Perhaps the most inventive moment involves a reporter flashing pictures as he’s swallowed up by the gaping jaws. But sadly, even with a mere 90-minute runtime, the movie is entirely too slow, dragging along with an unconvincing romance (which has no place in the film), nightmares, “Jaws” music rips, Marisa’s strange mother, random explosions, and subtle satire that is forgotten amid the lengthy hunt for a questionably elusive anomaly. At least, the brutal wedding attack and subterraneous climax serve comeuppance for the evil humans as well as providing fleeting suspense – before the typical twist ending decisively ruins it all.
– Mike Massie