Ed. Note– I’m looking forward to meeting Lewis Teague at Monster-Mania this weekend. It reminded me of this review I wrote ages ago, for Icons of Fright. I brushed it up a little for its appearance here, but the flick itself is still mediocre, and I wonder what it would have been like in the hands of Joe Dante, who directed THE HOWLING from screenwriter John Sayles’ script. That, and I think the film is really a biting symposium on male pattern baldness.– P.F.
In an era when JAWS rip offs were prolific, screenwriter John Sayles was a hot commodity. His output was responsible for two such films, the first of which was 1978’s cheeky, low budget PIRANHA, which foreshadowed the humorous touches to horror that led to director Joe Dante’s early success with THE HOWLING and GREMLINS. Sayles’ second plundering of the big shark tale was ALLIGATOR, a middling horror effort that’s fun to watch at times just because it’s so silly. In Dante’s hands it could have been a sweet, anarchic ride through big water beasts. In Lewis Teague’s hands, it turns into a mediocre horror effort, with some playful material and few scenes of decent gore.
X marks the Oscar: Though his early career low budget efforts for Roger Corman would never foreshadow it, John Sayles is twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Screenwriting Original Screenplay. No, not for THE HOWLING and ALLIGATOR, silly. Those two are based on books.
The plot for ALLIGATOR is absolutely preposterous. A little girl’s parents take her to watch gator wrestling. After a bunch of quick cuts that indicate a wrestler just got mauled by a gator, the family returns home. The girl plays with her new pet, a baby alligator. Dad, an overbearing blowhard who’s possibly abusive, takes the gator and flushes it (in a POV shot from the swirling inside of a toilet bowl, no less). Flash forward. A pet store owner with male pattern baldness funds animals for illegal genetic research. A cop with male pattern baldness investigates body parts found in the city sewers. His bald boss tries to keep the city from fear. A supersized gator who’s naturally bald taunts the cop with more and more body parts. A reptile expert who’s not bald hooks up with the cop, both professionally and in bed.
And then there’s the hunter that the cops bring in to kill the gator. The idea of hiring a great white hunter to patrol the city streets with a rifle in hand is just silly. The fact that he hires black kids off the streets as “natives” to help him track the alligator is insulting. The fact that the hunter is played by Henry Silva… well, that is ludicrous.
More ludicrous than the gator itself? Perhaps, but that’s too close for me to call. The creature is portrayed in two ways. The first looks as if it cost the majority of the film’s budget, a rather large mock up of a gator. Teague mostly uses this version to show his monster tearing with its teeth and massive jaws. It’s moderately effective. In fact, it’s much better than the alternative; because Teague could not get the mock up to move down streets and toward victims, he used a baby alligator on obvious miniatures of sets. I applaud his ingenuity, but it undermines any hope of scares. Especially when Teague has already treated us to watch a sibling flushed down a toilet with a POV shot.
And yet, I really believe this could have worked, had Joe Dante directed it. Dante would have brought a zany energy to the film, playing it for the joke it should have been; in short, it would have succeeded because it would have been PIRANHA (precisely the reason Dante would never have done the film). Teague doesn’t know quite what to do with the material. He plays much of the film as a gruff cop drama, but there’s no mystery here at all, because the name of the movie is ALLIGATOR. And the jokes, scripted by the brilliant Sayles, are funny but ill fitting at times.
Features abound on this DVD like those body parts the police keep finding. Look to the trailers for other Lions Gate films to see how millions of dollars of poorly done CGI can look just as silly as a baby alligator on a miniature set. The first of the two main features is the commentary track with Teague and lead balding actor Robert Forster, moderated from someone from Dark Delicacies. Teague tended to be repetitive on the other two commentaries I’ve heard from him, but with Forster constantly asking “Do you remember when…?” and the moderator prodding him, he’s okay here. This track might have had a shot at being interesting had it included Sayles, who’s got an interesting career as a low budget writer. Fortunately, Sayles gets his own 17-minute featurette, “Alligator Author,” during which he discusses many of the reasons for the things he included in his script for the film. And he explains why he had to change his ending more than once to preserve the gator mock up (I couldn’t make this one up if I tried, folks).
When John Sayles was writing ALLIGATOR, he was also drafting a script for Joe Dante’s follow-up to PIRANHA, a werewolf film called THE HOWLING. For both films, he was given a previously written script, and told this: Keep the title and the monster, and do whatever you want with the rest. There’s not a little bit of irony in the fact that Joe Dante directed THE HOWLING, which many consider a minor classic. Given the same talented writer, Lewis Teague put forth ALLIGATOR, a mediocre horror flick that lacks the verve and special effects of Dante’s lycanthropy effort. It’s an interesting dichotomy of what two directors can do with a common writer.