When Jaws became the most successful movie ever made it was inevitable that there would be some rip-offs. Low points were definitely Tentacles (which managed to get Henry Fonda and John Huston to star in it), Barracuda (is that even a threat?) and Piranha 2: Flying Killers (James Cameron’s first film, I’m surprised it wasn’t his last). But there were also a few really good imitations, Joe Dante’s Piranha obviously but also lewis Teague’s Alligator.
Alligator had the distinction of not only successfully ripping off Jaws but also having a children’s game that successfully ripped off the Jaws children’s game. After Jaws game out the good people at Ideal games decided that kids would want nothing more than a game they could all play where a killer shark would try to bite their fingers off as they tried to fish old bones and bits of boat out of its mouth. It was a massive success obviously. So when Alligator splashed into cinemas it was considered a great idea to roll out to the toy shops a giant alligator. Here you had to pull ladders and suitcases from its, er, jaws without it snapping shut on you. It was the same as the Jaws game in almost every way, but then that was the same as Buckaroo so it’s not like Ideal could sue anyone.
I bought that Alligator game shortly after I saw the film in a double bill with, I think, a Charles Bronson thriller where someone end up with an axe in his head. Neither film was appropriate for my age but at least Alligator was a lot of fun (the axe was the only good thing about the other film). And do you know what? It still is.
A young girl wins a baby alligator at a fair (was that ever actually a thing? It seems deeply irresponsible all round) and her drunken, furious father flushes the poor thing down the toilet. A number of years later, the alligator, having survived on a diet of lab experimented Labradors, is now a giant of a beast, at first munching on low lives who enjoy hanging around in sewers, but soon he’s turning up at children’s parties. There’s a darkly hilarious moment when two kids dressed as pirates lead a third down the plank (their swimming pool diving board) only for the poor little blighter to be pushed off into the waiting alligator’s open mouth. I suspect in modern films someone would have swooped in and saved the child at the last moment, here he just gets swallowed whole. Eventually, and inevitably, our villain shows up at the home of the guys doing all the animal experiments and kills them all during a wedding. I remember being blown away by the violence and size of the monster in this scene, and whilst it’s kind of silly now (waiters are flung through the air by his giant tail) and the alligator itself is not entirely convincing, it still is a thrilling and fun scene in a film full of them.
Of course it has been written before but it’s worth saying again, what really makes Alligator a rock solid monster movie is the writing by John Sayles. He gives every character some weird quirk or dark touch. Having been made in the 1970s everything and everyone is just a little bit sleazy: the main cop apologies to the female lead by telling her she has a great pair of tits – it’s like working in my office. My favourite character has to be the police chief played by Michael V. Gazzo who might sport two of the finest eyebrows in cinematic history. He sounds like he has been drinking whisky and chain smoking cigars at a Kiss concert: for some bizarre reason he HAS TO SHOUT EVERY SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE in a husky crackle. His best line is when he screams at a bunch of cops looking through a few shrubs for the giant lizard: “Well he’s not going to be hiding in there, is he!” Weird thing is, even in quiet moments when he’s just in a small room with one other person Gazzo is shouting he head off. I love him.
Robert Forster plays the main star, a grizzled, breaking the rules, cliche of a cop. However Forster was clearly having some receding hairline issues at the time so Sayles, bless him, decided to incorporate them into the script. Forster can’t go anywhere without some one telling him they went through the same thing or giving him advice on how to deal with baldness. When his gal brushes her hand through his head absent-mindedly he almost jumps out of his own skin, “what are you doing?! I’m very sensitive about my hair!”. Brilliant.
It’s a shame there aren’t any giant animal movies made like this any more. Okay you’ve got the Sharknados and stuff like that, but really, who cares about them? Seemingly not the people who make them. Alligator came at the tail end of a cycle of movies that were both good and bad but when they were made by genuine up and coming talents who took the stories, if not exactly seriously, then with at least with a serious approach, they could end up being a genuinely entertaining bit of film making.
They could also end up with Alligator the Game. That wasn’t so good, but it still had some kind of power to entertain children. It sat for years under a bush in my parents back garden and would freak out any nephew or niece who came across it. Maybe Police Chief Razzo was wrong, those coppers were looking in the right place after all…