No urban legend endures like the following one. After being flushed down the toilet, baby alligators grow into albino, blind adults and form a community beneath the streets of New York City. Everyone knows and often totes this particular myth like it’s fact; the story is as much part of Americana as baseball. One reason why sewer gators persist is because of the media. In addition to movies and television, Robert Daly’s 1959 book The World Beneath the City planted the notion that alligators may indeed lurk in urban sewer systems. However, the legend was immortalized on the big screen in 1980. Since then, everyone thinks twice when stepping over an open manhole.
Some years ago, it was typical for Americans touring the South to pick up unusual souvenirs. For young Marisa, she brought home a baby alligator. Her parents eventually flushed it down the toilet, but years later, that same gator would come in contact with dangerous growth hormones. In time, the reptile grows to monstrous proportions before erupting from below the city. Now, it’s up to a local cop and a scientist to stop this mutant before it’s all too late.
A LEGEND IN THE MAKING
After having worked as the editor on Roger Corman’s films in the 1970s, Lewis Teague began directing. Alligator not only became his second feature as the sole director but it was also his first horror movie. Teague wasn’t completely won over by the initial script; he still enjoyed the idea behind it. After all, he, like so many others, was familiar with the urban legend that inspired the movie. Teague agreed to do the project so long as John Sayles (Piranha) could do the rewrite.
With the late Robert Forster cast as the lead — an affable and not too gruff cop named David Madison — and newcomer Robin Riker as his co-star — sharp herpetologist and love interest Marisa Kendall — production commenced in Los Angeles, California for five weeks. The filmmakers say the movie is set in Chicago, but all signs (literal ones at that) suggest the story takes place in St. Louis, Missouri. It doesn’t matter as seasoned Angelenos will recognize many of the shooting locations used in the movie.
UP TO SCALE
Before we ever see that unforgettable street-level mayhem or that wedding from hell, the film’s namesake spends most of its time below ground. This required production to extensively shoot in the real L.A. storm drain system or on their own constructed sewer sets. It’s down in those dank and dark sewers where David first catches a glimpse of the marauding monster. There was a mechanical alligator available, but Teague used it sparingly as it “didn’t work very well.” In fact, producer Brandon Chase already constructed his own prop — a lightweight “rubber shell supported with a rattan framework” — before the project was ever given the go-ahead.
Unfortunately, it took Chase three years to find financial backers for the film, and during that time, the alligator’s rubber decomposed while sitting in a warehouse. Although the original prop “disintegrated,” a special effects creator used the same molds to create a new model that “put permanence and durability above practicality and mobility.” This meant the thick, rubber alligator fixed on a metal frame was so heavy that even two stout men couldn’t budge it. Its limited use led to many scenes only showing a rolling, disembodied head with movable jaws.
Robert Forster’s David may not be as iconic as Jaws‘ Sheriff Martin Brody, but the character was fetching in his own ways. When Forster wasn’t funneling his work ethic and spirit into the role, he was researching the validity of sewer alligators, believe it or not. As he says on the Lionsgate DVD’s audio commentary, Forster didn’t want to be “one of these gullible guys.” A running gag in the film is one at Robert’s expense — David‘s thinning hair was brought up several times by his co-stars. This sounds mean, but it was actually all at Robert’s behest. Aside from injecting even more humor into this already dark action-comedy, the digs humanized David.
The detective’s better half, Dr. Marisa Riker, is the brains of the duo. She’s backed by science and occasionally foiled by an overbearing mother (a nod to the mother of Teague’s own ex-girlfriend). In a rather understated development, though, Marisa is afforded a full-circle story of her own. She’s the young girl at the beginning of the movie, and it is her pet baby alligator (dubbed Ramòn) that grew into the frightful behemoth we all know today. It’s a slippery fact audiences might have missed.
FEEDING THE ECO
It’s been stated the titular monster is the physical embodiment of Madison’s internal problems, especially those caused by seeing his partner devoured before his very eyes. Yet as the movie continues, more texture on this gator hide is revealed. Nature’s revenge movies are by design commentary on ecological threats posed by mankind. The go-to cause for freakish mutations is industrial pollution and the needless tampering of the environment. John Sayles’ script indeed came from first-hand knowledge and word-of-mouth stories of animal cruelty and improperly disposed lab animals. Hence Alligator‘s eponymous knave surviving its descent into the sewers by feeding on the discarded test subjects of Slade Pharmaceuticals. Slowly, it climbs its way up the socioeconomic ladder before it reaches the top.
Ahead of the famous wedding scene, the alligator is spotted roaming the streets and canals in search of human-sized snacks. Cops, divers, and even a game hunter (Henry Silva) are no match for the voracious predator dosed with synthetic testosterone. Childhood memories of pirate costumes and Halloween influenced League to then film one of the most mean-spirited deaths in all of ’80s horror. Finally, the gator rears its oversized, toothy head at an upper-crust wedding hosted at the mansion of Slade himself (Dean Jagger). No one is spared as the blood of the elite is sprayed in every direction. The affluent host, trapped inside a town car as his creation crushes the vehicle into a cube with its massive tail, dies fittingly in the lap of luxury.
Creature features born in the wake of Jaws don’t always come out unscathed. Surprisingly, this indie horror was met with a favorable response from audiences, and critics like Leonard Maltin were won over (“If you’ve got to make a movie about a giant alligator, this is the way to do it”). It was a modest summer hit for distributor Group 1 Films — $6 million against a $1.5 million budget — and the leads remember the movie and each other fondly.
Despite it becoming a cult film, this one isn’t easy to come by on home video these days. It’s simultaneously elusive for collectors and underestimated by the higher powers in charge. Be that as it may, the movie has aged incredibly well. The inside jokes are enlightening and the set pieces are indelible. Crocodilian horror comes in waves, but few entries make as big of a splash as Alligator.
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