Alligator is a well written, tongue in cheek horror film centered on the old urban legend of alligators that are flushed down the drain and thrive in the subterranean jungle of the city sewer. The film was penned by writer/director John Sayles who helped write the 1978 Joe Dante Jaws homage Piranha and would also help to write the upcoming release of The Howling. Sayles crafts another horror classic that pits man against a marauding beast with an insatiable appetite.
Robert Forster stars as policeman David Madison who has been investigating some grizzly murders committed in the sewers of a Missouri city. Madison begins investigating further after a pet store owner’s remains ended up in the city’s sewage treatment facility. One other baffling discovery is a women’s small dog that appears to have grown in size substantially after it was reported missing.
Madison consults Dr. Arthur Helms (James Ingersoll) a young researcher at Slade Pharmaceuticals as to how an animal could double in its size within a short time. Dr. Helms informs Madison that there is no such explanation as to how an animal could double its size so rapidly.
Madison is convinced that there is someone or something below the city that is responsible for these killings. Madison enlists the help of patrolman Jim Kelly (Perry Lang) to accompany him into a section of the sewer where the killings have occurred. After scouting the sewers for hours Madison and Kelly are attacked by the alligator and Kelly is killed while he and Madison try to escape through a manhole cover. Madison awakens days later in the hospital and tries to convince the Chief that it was in fact a giant alligator that has been responsible for the recent deaths.
Madison and Chief Clark (Gazzo) enlist the help of local reptile expert Dr. Marisa Kendall (Riker) who is skeptical that an alligator could have grown to such a massive size outside of its natural environment. Madison heads a task force of officers and SWAT team units to enter the sewer and drive the alligator out so it can be destroyed. Underestimating their adversary Madison, Marisa, and the police force are outsmarted by the alligator that soon breaks loose and begins an even larger body count on the surface.
The next great addition to the cast is veteran character actor Henry Silva who plays Colonel Brock, the big white hunter who is called in to take over the search for the alligator. Madison is taken off the case, but teams up with the very attractive Dr. Kendall to conduct their own investigation in finding the alligator and destroying it before it’s too late.
The film is chock full of classic scenes which make me laugh in hysterics whenever I watch them. One such scene is when the alligator breaks loose through a city sidewalk and begins its rampage. People flee and a police officer has his leg torn from his body as the giant gator ambushes him.
One other classic scene is when two boys dressed as pirates during a costume party take a little boy out to a swimming pool and force him to walk the plank. A mother summons the boys into the house as she turns on the lights to the pool. The blindfolded boy sees the gator in the pool just below a pool raft. The boy screams out as he is pushed into the pool and is instantly devoured by the gator. A bubbling pool of blood rises to the surface as the two other boys run away screaming in terror. I don’t know why, but that scene makes me laugh every single time. Over the top violence is a rare art form.
My absolute favorite part in the film is when the alligator attacks a high society wedding of the young Dr. Helms who is marrying the daughter of his boss, the head of Slade Pharmaceuticals. It is discovered that Slade and his company have been experimenting with growth hormones and using stray animals as their test subjects for years. Slade and Helms had been disposing the subjects in the sewer where the alligator fed on them and grew to its massive size. One other side effect of the drugs is that the gator has a voracious appetite.
The alligator busts loose on the wedding devouring guests left and right, while sending people hurtling mid air with its powerful tail. In one scene, the alligator kills Slade in his limo by flattening the car to a pancake. A truly gruesome demise for a man who played god with Mother Nature. Following the carnage at the wedding, Madison has a final showdown in the sewer with the alligator and triumphantly disposes of it once and for all.
Alligator was a surprise smash hit when it hit theaters in the summer of 1980. Robert Forster is outstanding in the film as well as the supporting cast. Silva’s performance as Brock is seconded only to Forster. Famed New York Times movie columnist Vincent Canby praised the film by saying “The film’s suspense is frequently as genuine as its wit and fond awareness of the clichés it’s using.” The film was followed by a straight to home video sequel Alligator II: The Mutation (1991) that had nothing to do with the original.
Alligator is available on DVD through Lions Gate Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.