It’s always fun to reminisce about the media of your youth and trace the bloody trails of your lifelong fears back to their source.
I’ve always been anxious around bodies of water. The sea in particular fascinates me as much as it scares me. It’s not a fear strong enough to be a phobia, but a certain… elemental uneasiness has always existed within me about the mysteries of the deep.
You can thank Jaw Therefore. I’ll tell anyone who will listen that the sight of Spielberg’s immortal classic has left a permanent scar on my psyche, thanks to its revelation at the tender age of four. This film is the basis. The root. The foundation of all my personal Heebie-Jeebies.
But when I think back a little more closely, it’s not fair Jaw that planted my fear of all water. Every major piece of film or television that really scared me as a kid had something to do with water… and whatever horrors lurked underneath.
One of those films is the cult classic alligator. And one scene was burned into my memory forever as a kid.
I ate creature traits of all kinds as a kid. Anything to do with animals chewing on people was so much my thing. That Jaw All gems were rip-offs in my eyes. I couldn’t get enough of it and alligator is no exception. The genre journeyman directed it Lewis Teague (Cujo, cat’s eye) and from the pen of the venerable John Sayles (Piranha, The Howl), alligator is considered one of the best of the Jaw inspired films that will follow after this classic.
Taking on the urban legend “Alligators in the Sewers,” John Sayles didn’t just write a cheap imitation Jaw. He wanted to say something with it.
alligator and its sequel (Alligator II: The Mutation) was on TV fairly regularly as a kid, and I watched it whenever I came across it while browsing channels. And every time I watched it, I dreaded waiting for a scene to happen…
During a birthday party, two children dressed as pirates make a blindfolded third child “walk the plank” while forcing them onto the backyard pool’s diving board. It’s night. The pool is dark. The child is already afraid. As the two pirates taunt and poke the victim in their game, the kid removes his blindfold just in time for the pool light to turn on, revealing the titular alligator’s massive jaws, which open wide to welcome his late-night snack.
The two pirates, who initially do not see the alligator, drive the child to certain death. We see the alligator overtaking the child underwater. The child pirates are terrified when they see what they have just done.
It’s a brief scene, but it’s by far the most haunting and chilling of the film, while maintaining a sense of the tongue-in-cheek edge that Sayles’ horror scripts are known for. “I bet you didn’t think we were going there did you,” the pool scene seems to grin at the audience.
It’s that snappy flavor that permeates the film and allows it to function as a tongue-in-cheek riff Jaw it was designed as. Most of the beats from Spielberg’s blockbuster are there, but subverted in an entertaining way. Our Brody representative is Detective Madison (Robert Forster), who fills the role with a performance that skirts the lines of sincerity and knowingly sardonic charisma. The show’s Matt Hooper is reptile expert Marisa Kendell (Robin Ricker), with whom Madison begins a relationship. Watching Brody and Hooper’s stand-ins become lovers is quite fun.
What if Quint was a showboat blowhard who’s completely out of his depth? That’s where Col. Brock (Henry Silva) comes along with all its sleazy charm. What if the local officials were more than just incompetents paying attention to their bottom line — they were downright evil assholes who the alligator slaughters in an act that can only be defined as nature’s vengeance?
The satirical edge of alligator isn’t credited enough for being as smart as it is. The entire film plays like an urban broadcast of the almost mythical narrative of Jaw. While Spielberg told a serious tale of man versus nature, Sayles and Teague take that blueprint and inject a heavy dose of cynicism over it. While Jaw includes issues of small town politics, alligator takes this theme and runs with it to take shots at Big Pharma and how the government bows to the highest bidder while the average person is eaten alive in battle – in this case, quite literally.
The film’s tone walks a tightrope between the real menace and terror of the alligator and the sardonic slant of the script. It’s about as tightly crafted as creature features can get. The effects are a product of their time, but still retain their charm. The shots of a real alligator walking on miniature sets are delightfully lo-fi. Think Night of the Lepus but with scales.
alligator has proven itself for horror fans. It was a popular staple of cable TV back then, and for years fans have longed for the film to get the physical media attention it deserves. Thanks to Scream Factory’s recent 4K release, the film is widely available and ready to be shared with a whole new generation of fans. And it’s worth looking at.