Years ago, before I lived in the state of Florida, I came down one winter vacation from school to visit my grandparents. One day, during our visit, my mother told me we were going on a boat ride. For a child, who had already had his fair share of spending hours at a wide array of south Florida shopping malls, I was thrilled. I didn’t realize, however, until after we arrived at the dock, that a large group of people would be joining my family and me. I can’t remember too much of what took place during the ride. I know the glorified captain of the boat was not much more than a tour guide, as he dispensed information to the passengers as to which celebrity lived in this or that house as the boat passed them. The part of the trip I distinctly remember, is when the boat stopped at a small island. While on the island, a show was put on for the boat’s passengers. The entertainment consisted of a man wrestling an alligator; albeit the alligator looked and moved like he was old enough to be a member of AARP, nevertheless, it was still an exciting outing for a little kid.
After the show was finished, my family and I walked around the island, which, minus the show, mainly consisted of people selling food and souvenirs at various stands. There was one particular stand, however, where baby alligators were being sold. Of course, not applying logic or forethought, I asked my mother if I could have one. I figured I would have the coolest pet in elementary school, when I returned home to Long Island. Needless to say, my mother put a decisive end to that line of thinking. Why am I taking you on this trip down memory lane? Well, the reason is, that the film “Alligator” opens in the exact same manner, with a family, watching a man (Jim Brockett) wrestle an alligator. When the show concludes, Marisa (Leslie Brown), a young girl, asks her mother, Madeline (Patti Jerome), to buy her a baby alligator; foolishly, unlike mine, the girl’s mother purchases the baby alligator which Marisa names Ramon. (As an aside: The main plot for the film was taken from the urban legend of how tourists would purchase baby alligators on trips to Florida, and once home, after the alligator began getting bigger, would flush it down the toilet. This legend still persists to this day, especially in New York City, where alligator sightings by city sewer workers have been reported. There is no telling, however, how the random gators got into the sewer, or how long they’ve been there).
The film opens in 1968. Once at home, in Missouri, with her new pet, it doesn’t take the young girl’s father Bill (Robert Doyle) long before he decides to flush the baby alligator down the toilet. From that scene, the film moves forward in time twelve years. An old part of the city sewer system has recently been worked on, and soon afterward, parts of human bodies, as well as the mangled body of an over-sized dog turns up at the sewage treatment plant. Assigned to the case, is Homicide Detective, David Madison, portrayed by Oscar nominee Robert Forster (Jackie Brown). Madison is haunted by the death of his former partner when he was a member of the St. Louis police force; a death he feels personally responsible for, and about which a reporter named Kemp (Bart Braverman) is constantly asking him questions. Madison is also, to a degree, kept at arm’s length by his fellow officers, who are hesitant to work with him. Forster brings just the right amount of seriousness to the role, but also injects humor into the implausibility of the overall task of attempting to destroy a dinosaur sized alligator.
Madison has recently purchased a new dog from pet shop owner Luke Gutchel (Sydney Lassick) who has gone missing, and who, Madison feels might have been killed in the sewer. As his investigation unfolds, Madison links Gutchel to Slade Pharmaceutical. Gutchel, it seems, was illegally selling captured dogs to the company so they could conduct their experiments. The lead researcher, Dr. Helms (James Ingersoll), has been paying Gutchel cash from a slush fund, and as part of their deal, he made Gutchel dispose of the dogs’ bodies after they had been experimented on. Gutchel was using the sewers to get rid of the evidence of his involvement in the crimes. When questioned by Madison, Dr. Helms admits that dogs are used in their experimentation, but that everything is above board and done according to proper procedure. Helms doesn’t admit, however, that part of the experimentation being conducted is the use of growth hormones to see how large they can grow the dogs.
The press, not getting the answers they want from the police, are speculating as to all sorts of reasons as to what is taking place in the sewers. Desperately wanting to get to the truth of the matter, Madison decides to go down into the sewers to look for answers. When he seeks volunteers, the only officer who will go with him is Kelly (Perry Lang), a rookie cop. The two search through the cavernous, poorly mapped sewers, dressed in waterproof leggings, and carrying gas masks, to put on, so as not to breathe in pockets of methane that is present in certain sections of the sewer. Madison and Kelly agree that they need more help searching, and should return with a crew, but while attempting to exit the sewers, they encounter the alligator. Turning around and running as fast as they can, Madison heads up a manhole cover ladder, but the opening at the top is stuck. As he is trying to push it open, Kelly who is located toward the bottom of the ladder, is carried away by the alligator to his death. When Madison wakes up in the hospital, he screams that he’s seen alligators in the sewers, something which no one believes.
Furthermore, Madison is taken to Dr. Marisa Kendall (surprise: she is the same character that was seen as a young girl at the start of the film), portrayed by Robin Riker (Brothers). Riker’s character is a herpetologist, a person who specializes in the study of reptiles and amphibians. She informs Madison that no alligator living in the sewer could grow to such lengths. The gator would need a considerable food source, but also have to become immune to the toxins, and that alligators need sunlight in order to function properly. After Madison leaves the hospital, Kemp begins questioning the staff and learns that Madison believes that there are alligators in the sewers; always looking for a story, Kemp ventures into the sewers looking for the alligator. He unfortunately finds what he’s looking for. The good thing, however, for Madison is that Kemp’s camera kept clicking as he was being devoured, and once it is recovered the images captured on the film validate Madison’s story. The question now is, how to deal with such a creature?
In addition to Forster and Riker, and the aforementioned actors, additional members of the cast include: Oscar nominee Michael V. Gazzo (The Godfather: Part II) as Police Chief Clark; also, veteran character actor Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate) who plays the character, Colonel Brock, a big game hunter who has been brought in to track and kill the alligator. The film also marks the last on screen appearance for Oscar winner Dean Jagger (Twelve O’ Clock High) as the unscrupulous, greedy businessman, and CEO of Slade Pharmaceutical. Additionally, in her, last acting role to date, Golden Globe winner Sue Lyon (Lolita) has a cameo appearance as an ABC news reporter.
“Alligator” was directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo); the job was originally offered to director Joe Dante (The Howling).The screenplay was written by two-time, Oscar nominee John Sayles (Eight Men Out), based on a story written by Sayles and Frank Ray Perilli (The Doberman Gang).The film premiered on July 2, 1980, and is parts horror – sci-fi, and thriller. Furthermore, years before portraying the iconic, Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” Golden Globe winner Bryan Cranston worked as a production assistant on “Alligator” for the special effects department.
In closing, the gore in “Alligator,” compared to what would probably be shown today, is not plentiful, but more implied by the aftermath of the alligator’s attack. The acting, especially by the leads, is competent. The film moves along at good pace during its 91 minute runtime, and with the exception of one scene, that takes place at the police station involving a would be bomber (John Lisbon Wood), there is no filler in the movie that doesn’t help to move the story forward. In addition, the music provided by Emmy winner Craig Huxley (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), synchs up well with what was taking place in the film. As long as a viewer takes “Alligator” in the spirit in which it was made and meant to be seen, it is a fun film to watch, and one that doesn’t require a lot of thought.