Flushed down a Chicago toilet, a baby alligator survives in the sewers by eating discarded laboratory dogs injected with growth hormones. Over the next twelve years, the small reptile grows to gigantic proportions and needs more than just dead dogs to satisfy its hunger. Soon enough, human body parts are beginning to wash up in the sewers and the police think that a serial killer may be on the loose. However, it isn’t long before the alligator escapes the city sewers and goes on a rampage.
One of the best of the Jaws imitators to come out in the years following Spielberg’s classic, Alligator takes one of America’s classic urban legends – that of pet alligators being flushed down into the sewers and managing to survive there – and turns it into an effective horror flick. It’s a B-movie in every sense of the definition with a little bit of black humour flowing underneath all of the cheap thrills but it stands out pretty easily from its ‘nature runs amok’ creature feature brethren. In fact writer John Sayles was also responsible for Piranha and the similarities between the approaches of both films are evident. Piranha fares a little better in the light-hearted entertainment stakes but Alligator is definitely the scarier of the two.
Alligator is well-paced and, like Jaws, takes time to build up the suspense and tension as we get fleeting glimpses of the creature roaming the sewers. It’s these scenes inside the sewers where Alligator really shines and has been etched on my mind for years. I remember catching a glimpse of the sequence in which the pet shop owner pushes his trolley through the huge storm drain when I was a child and it stayed with me all of these years until I finally watched the film in full. They’re dark, eerie, wet and labyrinthine – hardly the place you’d want to get lost in with a giant alligator prowling around. The constant welling of the water and the lack of light down there really gives the sewers a classic horror atmosphere which is played up well in the early going.
There are a number of decent set pieces scattered throughout the film and Alligator does try and mix things up so that it’s just not all the same thing over and over again. One particularly memorable scene involves a group of kids playing ‘walk the plank’ in a backyard swimming pool where the alligator has unfortunately found its new home (well unfortunate for the kid who actually walks the plank). In the wrong hands, a lot of these scenes would have come off as cheesier than they are but director Lewis Teague knows when to keep things serious and when to toss in some oddball humour. It’s pretty hard not to unintentionally laugh at some of the things on show, be it for the right reasons or the wrong reasons – the alligator bursting through the concrete sidewalk being a classic bad special effect.
Alligator does fall into some blatant Jaws plagiarising particularly the POV shots from the creature with the accompanying “duh-duh, duh-duh” soundtrack as it homes in on its victims. Some of the model work is a little blatant too – the scenes at the wedding where the alligator has to become more mobile than it has been for the entire film clearly consist of the model being wheeled around on a trolley. There is a bit of miniature work too involving a real alligator crawling around on some tiny sets but it’s forgivable. But the majority of the special effects are decent enough involving a model gator and it’s big enough for the characters to interact with as they are dragged kicking and screaming to their deaths or crushed between its huge teeth. Alligator is gory as a result, with lots of limbs flying around, blood flowing and a decent body count to boot.
There’s also a slackness in the script which kicks in around the half-way point once the alligator leaves the confines of the sewers and starts terrorising the city. There are too many one-note characters floating around to fulfil a number of clichéd requisites and a number of sequences feel forced because “they’re the genre norm” including the obligatory love interest developing between the main characters, the attack on a populated event (in this case a party) and token slime-ball characters getting their comeuppance.
Robert Forster is decent in the lead role and you can see why he’s still getting plenty of work in the 2000s and 2010s. It’s virtually the Chief Brody role all over again – the grizzled cop desperately trying to protect the people he’s paid to serve. Robin Riker co-stars as the female scientist/love interest and is clearly in the Matt Hooper know-it-all school of characters. This leaves Henry Silva to come along as the Quint character and think he has what it takes to kill the alligator. The acting is of a decent standard given the material and Forster does shine with his performance, though it’s Silva who steals the show with his short role as he convinces a trio of local youths to act as his ‘native’ auxiliaries and help him flush out the gator.
As far as killer reptiles go, Alligator ranks as one of the best. It’s not perfect and could have been a lot tighter as far as the film pans out but it delivers a huge amount of entertainment for genre fans without crossing over into parody. Killer crocodiles/alligators have never been more impressive than in this one despite special effects coming on in leaps and bounds over the years.