26 July 2008

Commemoration Via Alligator

Alligator (1980)
Directed by Lewis Teague. Starring Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Dean Jagger, Henry Silva.

Because I found out that my nephew Diego Martin was born while I was watching a DVD of the 1980 monster film Alligator, I’ll make some comments on the movie as a bizarre way of recording the moment. It’s very appropriate that I found out I had become an uncle during a monster movie, since it’s one of my favorite genres; this bodes well for my nephew.

Alligator belongs to the slew of Jaws-inspired (or Jaws-ripped-off, depending on your opinion of the film in question) movies of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Let’s glance over a few of the similarities between the two:
  • A rampaging, ginormous version of a dangerous animal goes on an unnatural foray on delicious human pink meat. The creature is pursued by...
  • A cop with a problematic past who at first has to convince skeptics that they are indeed dealing with a major danger. He teams up with...
  • A scientist who is an expert on the animal type. But they must cope with...
  • A crazy hunter who ends up getting fed feet-first to the beast. Furthermore, they must deal with...
  • The local mayor, who is hampering the investigation to cover his own butt.
Yep, no links to Jaws at all.

What Alligator doesn’t share in common with the other copies of Spielberg’s classic, like Grizzly and Tentacles, is its quality. It’s a darn good low-budget monster film, and with a script from John Sayles it’s often a funny one as well, tongue-in-cheek without toppling over into outright parody. Sayles drops in humorous details, such as the ‘gator-merchandise vendors staking out the lake where the creature was seen and a quip about a victim found wearing alligator shoes. Plus, there’s the solid Robert Forster onboard as the tormented cop—a natural casting choice for the material. His back-up as the plucky scientist is Robin Riker, who is spunky and sexy. The nutball hunter is played by veteran actor Henry Silva, but he has a smaller role in the action than his equivalent in Jaws, Robert Shaw’s Quint. He struts around a bit, throws out some condescending attitude toward the urban kids he hires (he calls them his “native bearers”), and then feeds the beast while screaming a lot. Thanks for dropping by anyway, Henry. It was appreciated.

The beast in this case is “Ramon,” a forty-foot alligator who got flushed into the city sewers as a baby, then grew fat on the leftovers of animal testing dumped illegally into his habitat by a pet-store owner in a very bad Hawaiian shirt. This mixes the urban legend about alligators in New York sewers with the standard eeeeeevil corporation common to most of these films. As an explanation, I’ll take it. Just give me the damn monster and let’s run with it. And John, thanks for not hammering the animal testing message home too hard. Also appreciated.

With any killer-beast film from this era, the big question viewers asks is, “What visual effects will they use to make the monster?” Before CGI, genre movies had this terrific tension about what methods the FX people would come up with to bring their monster to life. Alligator uses a combination of a full-sized alligator mock-up, head and tail props, and a real juvenile alligator lumbering around on miniature sets. But the most important tools in the FX kit are the old-fashioned tricks of judicious editing and poor lighting. The model shots with real ‘gator work wonderfully, especially the image of the alligator bursting up through the sidewalk. The head prop also gets some good mileage, but the full-sized alligator needs to rely on the editing to keep it from collapsing, since it can hardly move. When Ramon strikes an outdoor party at a mansion in the finale (thus reaching the top of the human food chain), the editors have to rely on fast shots of the tail and the head to distract from the clumsy and immobile full-body. I so thoroughly enjoyed watching it munch one villain and then crush the leathery Dean Jagger in his limo that I didn’t mind. You paid your money to get to this point—enjoy!

On a very happy day—I became an uncle—Alligator was a pleasant, bloody, and funny way to celebrate.

Diego, I’m going to make you watch this one day. If your mom allows me. But uncles get to pull off plenty of sneaky things because we’re expected to. And Reed won’t try to make you watch Alligator. He’ll try to convince you to watch a baseball game, but why bother with sports when you can watch giant killer monsters? Giant monsters make life worth living.