It’s always fun to reminisce about the media of your youth and trace the bloody traces 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 strong enough fear to be a phobia, but a certain… elemental unease has always existed in me regarding the mysteries of the deep.
you can thank Jaws for that. I tell anyone who wants to listen that seeing Spielberg’s immortal classic instilled a permanent scar on my psyche from exposure at the tender age of four. This film is the basis. The root. The foundation of all my personal heebie-jeebies.
When I think about it a bit more, however, it’s not just Jaws which planted my fear of anything aquatic. Every major bit of film or television that really scared me as a kid had something to do with water…and whatever horror lurked beneath it.
One such film is the cult classic Alligator. And one scene in particular has remained forever etched in my childhood memory.
I ate creature traits of all kinds when I was a kid. Anything to do with animals gnawing on people was so my shit. The Jaws scams were all pearls in my eyes. I couldn’t get enough and Alligator is no exception. Directed by a genre mate Lewis Teague (Cujo, cat’s eye) and written by the venerable John Sayles (Piranha, The Howl), Alligator is considered one of the best Jaws inspired films to follow in the wake of this classic.
Laughing at the urban legend of “alligators in the sewers,” John Sayles didn’t just write an easy forgery of Jaws. He meant something with it.
Alligator and its sequel (Alligator II: The Mutation) played fairly regularly on TV when I was a kid, and I watched it whenever I came across it while surfing the channels. And with each viewing, I waited with dread for a scene to occur…
At a birthday party, two children dressed as pirates “walk the board” a blindfolded third child as they force him onto the diving board in the backyard pool. It’s night. The pool is dark. The child is already afraid. As the two pirates taunt and poke the victim in their play, the child removes his blindfold just in time for the pool light to be turned on, revealing the titular alligator’s massive maw opening wide to accommodate his nighttime snack.
The two pirates, not seeing the alligator at first, push the kid to certain death. We see the alligator pass the child underwater. The child pirates are seized with abject terror when they see what they have just done.
It’s a brief scene, but it’s by far the most visceral and horrifying in the film, while still retaining a sense of the tongue-in-cheek look of Sayles’ horror scripts. “I bet you didn’t think we were going there, did you,” the pool scene appears to smile at the audience.
It’s that sarcastic flavor that pervades the film and makes it work like the tongue-in-cheek riff on Jaws it was designed as. Most of the beats from Spielberg’s blockbuster are present but amusingly subverted. Our replacement for Brody is Detective Madison (Robert Forster) that imbues the role with a performance that skirts the lines of sincerity and sardonic charisma. The Matt Hooper of the series is reptile expert Marisa Kendell (Robin Ricker) with whom Madison begins a relationship. It’s kind of nice to see Brody and Hooper’s replacements become lovers.
What if Quint was a showboating fanatic completely in over his head? This is where Colonel Brock (Henry Silva) arrives with all its smarmy charm. What if local officials were more than just incompetents chasing their bottom line – but downright evil assholes that the alligator slaughters in an act that can only be defined as nature’s revenge?
The satirical side of Alligator isn’t known enough to be as smart as he is. The entire film plays like an urban send-off of the near-mythical tale of Jaws. Where Spielberg told a gritty, gritty story of man versus nature, Sayles and Teague take that shot and splash a heavy dose of cynicism all over the place. Whereas Jaws contains themes of the small interests of small town politics, Alligator takes that theme and runs with it to shoot Big Pharma and how the government bows to the highest bidder while the average person is eaten alive in the fight – in this case, literally.
The film’s tone walks a tightrope balancing the genuine menace and horror of the alligator against the sardonic bent of the script. It’s about as tightly crafted as creature features. The effects are a product of their time, but still retain their charms. Photos of a real alligator walking across miniature sets are gloriously lo-fi. Think Night of Lepus but with scales.
Alligator has stood the test of time for horror fans. It was a cable TV staple at the time, and fans have longed 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 detour.