dir. Lewis Teague
"Harry Lime lives."
John Sayles has been the darling of left-leaning independent cinema for well over a generation. Avoiding the agitprop trappings of his progressive film-making peers, Sayles' films have instead humanized the people at the heart of such issues as class struggles, racism, and political activism. Through his nuanced and heartfelt characterizations, this intellectual has put a human face on themes so often presented in a blustery polemical fashion. How has such an unconventional voice in the cinematic landscape found the means to produce his pictures? Answer: by writing screenplays and doing rewrites for other folks. In the early years of his career, Sayles frequently worked for Roger Corman, writing such movies as Piranha and The Lady in Red. Making a few bucks through these and many other for hire projects, he has been able to bankroll his personal projects and avoid studio interference.
Truth be told, as interesting as Sayles' passion projects are, they are no match for the horror movies that he penned in the nascent years of his career. The pinnacle of his screenwriting work in this period is undoubtedly Alligator, a killer animal film that, unlike last week's installment, does not lack bite. In keeping with my killer animal theme it is appropriate that I would choose to review a film written by Sayles. He also wrote the aforementioned Piranha and The Howling (perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to lump The Howling with other killer animal movie fare but it is an awesome movie, nonetheless). Sayles was no stranger to this subject and he attacked it with the ferocious glee of one only too aware of the charms of this niche in the horror genre.
One of the hardest working men in the world of B cinema, Robert Forster stars as David Madison, a cop with a mysterious/sordid past who is intent on redeeming himself by exposing and offing a mutant 36 foot long sewer gator that no one else seems to believe exists. Why is it so hard for characters in these movies to latch on to the crazed rantings of the lead characters? Isn't it obvious that the limbs being discovered by law enforcement around sewage sites are the results of mutant gator attacks and not, say, leftovers from mob hits?
How is it that a mutant gator has come to roam the city's sewer system? A credit sequence set in 1968 shows the origins of the sewer gator. It is in this scene that the parents of young Marisa Kendall decide to flush their daughter's pet alligator as it has a tendency to shit all over the goddamn place. Landing in the sewer, it absorbs super chemicals dumped by the evil Slade corporation, chemicals this company uses in its animal experiments. The opener also contains a brief background TV newscast reporting on the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Aside from placing this scene in a historical context and adding a touch of political flavor, the riot news also works as a sly allusion to Forster's early work in Haskell Wexler's groundbreaking Medium Cool. This is the first of many cinematic/pop cultural winks. Among the others are: allusions to The Third Man, inclusion of a sewer worker named Ed Norton, and Jaws inspired music during the frequent gator attacks.
In attempting to understand the situation, Madison enlists the help of reptile expert Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker), the very same person whose childhood pet, unbeknownst to her, has turned into the current beast ruling the underworld. Now that's what I call screenwriting! When his intrepid investigation uncovers a link between Slade's chemical dumpings and the sewer gator, Madison gets his ass canned by the mayor, a friend of the Slade family. Madison remains committed, however, to eliminating this threat. He eventually tells Kendall about the source of his drive. In an homage to The Onion Field, it is revealed that when Madison and a previous partner were abducted by two criminals, Madison handed over his piece to the two goofs, which one of the lowlifes then in turn used to ice Madison's partner. The guilt has racked Madison all these years and he sees it as his duty to eliminate the gator and salvage his dignity.
When the gator finally emerges from the sewer and wreaks havoc on the population, the city gets gator fever -- panic mixed with a smidge of economic opportunism. Many attempts are made to bring down the gator, all to no avail. The cops even enlist the use of a renowned big game hunter. Unfortunately, for the populace, the big game hunter becomes the big game hunted (cue ominous music). This news is most unfortunate for the Slade family as they are to become the next victims. In perhaps the best wedding scene this side of The Godfather (no to mention one of the most cathartic scenes of animal on ruling class violence), the gator attacks a party at the Slade mansion.
After having its way with the the party guests, the gator destroys the head of the Slade family.
It is unfortunate for this Slade that he did not heed the advice of another important Slade.
It would seem that nothing can stop this beast. Nothing, that is, but Robert Fucking Forster. After his wedding rampage, Mr. Gator makes a run for it with Madison in pursuit. This hellbent cop travels down to the sewers, where the gator has returned, to go mano a mano with this beast, resulting in one hell of a finale.
What is amazing about Sayles' work in Alligator is the attention he gives to even the most minor characters. When the gator erupts through a sewer hole, interrupting a kids' street baseball game, one of the kids runs into his home and searches for a knife to use in attacking the gator. His mother, nursing a Bud and chatting away on the phone, completely ignores her son's warning about the killer gator and complains to her friend on the phone about the nuisance that is her child. This brief scene speaks volumes about characters whom we will never revisit. Few other screenwriters understand the need to make even the most minor characters compelling.
With all this attention given to Sayles, it should be noted that precious few words have been written about the film's director Lewis Teague. Teague and Sayles previously collaborated on The Lady in Red. Although not a director of particular note, Teague has churned out a stream of entertaining genre pictures, including Cujo and The Jewel of the Nile, and culminating with his crowning achievement Navy Seals. Although he does a decent job of directing here, most notably with the special effects, much of the film's charm is due to the nuanced characterizations and intricate plotting of Sayles' script.
Words can not begin to describe the awesome majesty that is Alligator. Sayles et al. truly understand the importance of delivering the goods in a genre picture. Indeed, the film opens with a balls to the wall alligator attack. From there the movie does not let up. It contains quite a healthy mix of character development, interesting story developments, and animal attacks. It is truly the Citizen Kane of urban-legend-inspired-flushed-alligators-turned-mutant-killer-sewer-beast films. Oh how far John Sayles has fallen.