It’s always fun to reminisce on the media of your youth and trace the bloody trails of your lifelong fears back to their origins.
Me, I’ve always been anxious around bodies of water. The ocean in particular fascinates me as much as it terrifies me. It’s not a potent enough fear to be a phobia, but a certain… elemental unease has always existed within me regarding the mysteries of the depths.
You can thank Jaws for that. I tell anyone who will listen that seeing Spielberg’s immortal classic instilled a permanent scar on my psyche thanks to exposure at the tender age of four. That film is the foundation. The root. The bedrock of all of my personal heebie-jeebies.
When I think back a little harder, though, it’s not just Jaws that planted my fear of all thing aquatic. Every significant piece of film or television that genuinely frightened me as a child had something to do with the water… and whatever horror was lurking underneath it.
One such film is the cult classic Alligator. And one scene in particular was forever seared into my memory as a child.
I ate up creature-features of all sorts as kid. Anything that had to do with animals chomping on people was so very much my shit. The Jaws rip-offs were all gems in my eyes. I couldn’t get enough of them and Alligator is no exception. Directed by genre journeyman Lewis Teague (Cujo, Cat’s Eye) and penned by the venerable John Sayles (Piranha, The Howling), Alligator is considered one of the best of the Jaws inspired flicks to follow in the wake of that classic.
Riffing on the “alligators in the sewers” urban legend, John Sayles didn’t just pen an easy cash-grab knock-off of Jaws. He wanted to say something with it.
Alligator and its sequel (Alligator II: The Mutation) played fairly regularly on TV when I was a kid, and I would watch it every time I happened upon it while channel surfing. And with every viewing, I would wait in dread for one scene to happen…
During a birthday party two kids dressed as pirates are making a third, blindfolded kid “walk the plank” as they force him onto the diving board of the backyard pool. It’s nighttime. The pool is dark. The kid is scared already. As the two pirates taunt and jab the victim in their play, the kid removes his blindfold just in time for the pool light to be switched on, revealing the massive maw of the titular alligator opening wide to welcome his nighttime snack.
The two pirates, not seeing the gator at first, push the kid to certain death. We see the gator overtake the child underwater. The child-pirates are struck by abject terror when they see what they’ve just done.
It’s a brief scene, but it’s by far the most visceral and horrifying of the film while also retaining a sense of the tongue-in-cheek edge Sayles’ horror scripts are known for. “Bet you didn’t think we’d go there, did you,” the pool scene seems to smirk at the audience.
It’s that snarky flavor that permeates the film and makes it work as the tongue-in-cheek riff on Jaws it was conceived as. Most of the beats from Spielberg’s blockbuster are present but subverted in fun ways. Our Brody stand-in is Detective Madison (Robert Forster) who imbues the role with a performance that skirts the lines of sincerity and knowing sardonic charisma. The Matt Hooper of the show is reptile expert Marisa Kendell (Robin Riker) who Madison begins a relationship with. It is rather enjoyable seeing Brody and Hooper stand-ins become lovers.
What if Quint was a showboating blowhard completely in over his head? That’s where Col. Brock (Henry Silva) comes in with all his smarmy charm. Then what if the local officials were more than just incompetents looking out for their bottom line – but downright evil assholes who the alligator slaughters in an act that can only be defined as nature’s vengeance?
The satirical edge of Alligator isn’t given enough credit for being as clever as it is. The entire film plays like an urban-set send-up of the near-mythic narrative of Jaws. Where Spielberg told a serious, earnest tale of man vs. nature, Sayles and Teague take that blueprint and splash a heavy dose of cynicism all over it. While Jaws contains themes of the petty interests of small town politics, Alligator takes that theme and runs with it to take shots at Big Pharma and how government kowtows to the highest bidder all the while the average person is eaten alive in the struggle – in this case quite literally.
The tone of the film walks a tightrope balancing the genuine menace and horror of the gator and the sardonic bent of the script. It’s about as tightly crafted as creature-features get. The effects are a product of their time, but still retain their charms. The shots of a real alligator walking on miniature sets are gloriously lo-fi. Think Night of the Lepus but with scales.
Alligator has stood the test of time for horror fans. It was a beloved staple of cable viewing back in the day and fans have yearned for years and years for the film to get the physical media attention it deserves. Thanks to Scream Factory’s recent 4K release, the film is widely available to share with a whole new generation of fans. And it’s well worth the viewing.