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The Kendal family returns from their Florida vacation with a new baby alligator in tow. Soon after, daddy Kendal decides to flush the new pet down the toilet. Meanwhile, Slade Laboratories is conducting secret hormonal experiments with stray dogs. The dogs that don’t survive the testing are dumped in the Chicago city sewer. The baby alligator feeds on the dogs, and in twelve short years it mutates into a monster. Now good cop David Madison (Robert Forster) has a whole pile of dead bodies on his hands.

It’s not often that you find yourself in the presence of such an obvious subgenre frontrunner, but I can say without an ounce of doubt that Alligator is the Alpha and Omega of killer Crocodilia movies. The subgenre shows no sign of slowing down (this year we saw Primeval, next year we’ll see Rogue), but I find it very hard to believe that anyone will ever reach the dizzying heights of Cretaceous born mayhem that is Alligator.

The alligator’s share of credit rests on the able and strong shoulders of writer John Sayles (who shares a co-story credit with Frank Ray Perilli), the scripting mastermind behind other funny/scary monster movies like Piranha and The Howling, both directed by Joe Dante (elements of his original E.T. treatment also found their way into Gremlins), and director of genuine works of cinematic art like The Brother from Another Planet and Lone Star. Sayles is a master of duelling tones, second in my book only to Larry Cohen (and maybe Stuart Gordon) in the realms of this particular brand of comedic horror. Sayles’ script fulfils the expectations of every member of the audience, offering up environmental allegory, flippant sarcasm, classic dialogue exchanges, and zany monster movie moments. Above all he never forgets to provide an entertaining story that borrows from Jaws without ripping it off completely.

Director Lewis Teague is no auteur, but his set pieces are effective, and his use of the film’s paltry estimated budget of about one million dollars is impressive. The special effects are a little wonky, but considering the budget and time the film was made (1980) they’re pretty impressive. The scene where the title creature breaks out of the sewer to take a stroll is actually pretty convincing use of animatronics and miniatures. Teague handles the duelling comedic and horrific tones well by treating the monster material seriously. It’s his job to make the scary stuff work; it’s the actors’ job to make the funny stuff work. In praise of the man, the swimming pool scene is still one of the most chilling in monster movie history, and got Stephen King’s attention. The writer later hired Teague to direct Cujo, one of King’s best film adaptations.

The actors are great; all treat the ridiculous material with the respect needed to make it work. They’re led by the incomparably cool (medium-cool, that is, ba-dum-dum) Robert Forster. I recently caught Forster once again battling giant reptiles in Dragon Wars, where he was woefully misused as a wise man rather than a heroic straight man. Few B-stars play ‘heroic straight man dealing with absurdity’ better than Forster, and few actors exude as much manly medium-coolness with their voice alone (many people forget that his work in Jackie Brown was Oscar nominated). According to the audio commentary he had quite a bit of input into this well rounded character. Manchurian Candidate co-star and voice of Bane on Batman: The Animated Series, Henry Silva also makes an impression and chews the scenery as the Great White Hunter, Col. Brock. His appearance gives the film a nice second act boost.



This marks the first release of Alligator in North America. Previous to this moment giant man-eater fans had to go to the UK to get a decent DVD release. Anchor Bay UK's release was a decent looking disc, though a bit on the dirty and blocky side. This new release is almost identical, but less blocky, and with better contrast. The problem is that this transfer is pretty obviously interlaced. It doesn't look too bad on the TV, but it was a bitch to get a good screen cap.


The Anchor Bay UK release features a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 5.1 track. This disc doesn’t feature a DTS track, but it isn’t much of a loss. The R2 DTS track is basically identical to the Dolby Digital track, plus a little extra echo, but more importantly a B-horror flick from 1980 really doesn’t require such an impressive track.

The 5.1 track here isn’t very impressive in the sense of surround and fidelity, but it’s clean and clear, and thick enough to back up a good scare. The sound is a bit flat and perhaps a little tinny, but there isn’t any noticeable distortion on high ends. Dialogue is a bit overbearing on the track, and the electronic/symphonic score could do with a boost, but I’m happy with the lack of artificial surround channel additions. The original Mono track, which is almost identical to the 5.1 track, minus a few stereo effects and bass, is also available for traditionalists.



So long as there’s an Anchor Bay UK disc, LionsGate might as well grab the director/star commentary track, right? The track is good enough that a new one wasn’t required, unless of course it could’ve also featured John Sayles, but getting Sayles, Teague, and Forster together for another commentary track would’ve been quite the headache I’m sure. The commentary, which is also featured on a German release, and is kept on track by a mediator, is brisk and filled with amusing anecdotes aplenty.

The UK disc has a few extras not found here, all small stuff like additional trailers and biographies, but this disc features an interview with Sayles, which is a bit more impressive. It’s not quite an additional commentary track I wanted, but Sayles fills in the blanks and covers probably all the same bases he would’ve covered on a commentary track. His recollections of his inspirations are sharp, and the insight into his creative process is pretty sweet. The interview runs about seventeen minutes, and is followed by the original theatrical trailer, along with some trailers for newer LionsGate monster movie releases, all of which look freakin’ awful.



See it, see it now. Go to the store and celebrate the fact that we in the United States no longer need to special order this B-classic from Europe. Alligator is smart, funny, scary, and purely awesome. It’s well made without an iota of pretension, and has more on its gigantic alligator mind than simply slathering the screen with blood, though there’s plenty of that too.