Alligator is the correct and proper way to make a giant critter movie. People create the monster. Monster eats people.
A vacationing couple and their daughter watch an alligator nearly bite a man’s leg off at a hick circus in Missouri. Struck by the wonder of this magic moment, they buy their little girl her own baby gator from a nearby huckster.
Soon after the family’s return to Chicago, Dad flushes the little lizard down the crapper. See you later, alligator.
Fast forward 12 years and there’s a monster-sized alligator in the sewer.
While we could blame the irresponsible father who bought the damn thing in the first place, John Sayles’ civic conspiracy-minded script points the guilty finger at Slade (Dean Jagger), a cadaverous old CEO whose company’s clandestine experiments with growth hormones have dramatically affected the local food chain.
Troubled-but-honest cop David Madison (Robert Forester) is the detective saddled with the thankless job of going into the sewer and capturing the rampaging reptile. Through his frustrating quest, Sayles and director Lewis Teague reveal that corrupt politicians and muckraking journalists are no help whatsoever, and deserve to be eaten.
Madison enlists the help of gorgeous herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) in an effort to get inside the lizard brain, while the mayor (Jack Carter) brings in famous big game hunter Colonel Brock (Henry Silva) to slay the beast.
When Madison’s investigation gets too close to Slade Industries, the spineless mayor has him fired, removing the one competent person in Chicago that’s committed to stopping the creature.
Soon the alligator is popping up all over the place. A backyard swimming pool, a nearby canal, dark alleys, and eventually the posh wedding at Slade Mansion, where the monster eats its fill of the elite guest list and dispenses justice at the same time.
The reason Alligator is revered as a classic of the genre, is usually attributed to the presence of Sayles, who went on to direct lauded art-house fare like Matewan, Lone Star, and Passion Fish, making him a favorite among the well-heeled brie and festival crowd.
It doesn’t hurt that plot and characters mirror the Jaws template, even twisting the knife a little deeper into the culpability of swinish local officials.
The cast of marvelous professionals, including Forester, Riker, Silva, and Michael Gazzo as a beleaguered police chief, really nail the story in place and bring it to life. Every actor, from top to bottom, brings humor and humanity to their roles, and that gives the production a big lift.
Even ancient faces like Jagger and Mike Mazurki get a little screen time!
And let’s not forget the titular terror. There’s no CGI here, just miniature sets and strong practical effects that emphasize flailing bodies in the gator’s mouth, with blood gushing, and bones crunching.
As it should be. People getting eaten by monsters is, perhaps, the highest form of cinema.