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Alligator (1980)

DVD Released: 9/18/2007

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/17/2007

As I look at the DVD cover art for Alligator, I find myself somewhat sad. Not because there's anything technically wrong with the art, but because it makes the movie look like it could be just any random direct-to-DVD animal-run-amok movie. In the past decade, we've seen a slew of films where sharks, alligator, octopi, and all manner of beasties attack human, and Alligator looks as if it could be the latest entry. In fact, the film is from 1980 and was one of the better post-Jaws animal films.

Alligator opens with a vacationing family in Florida buying a baby alligator. Once they return to their mid-western city home, Dad freaks out for some reason (seriously, what is his problem?) and flushes the alligator down the toilet. We see the gator come out in the sewers.

The film then jumps ahead 12 years. Detective David Madison (Robert Forster) is investigating a case where bodies parts have shown up in the sewer system. Madison also learns that several grossly oversized dogs have been found in the sewers as well. While checking out the sewers, Madison is confronted by a giant alligator. Unfortunately, despite the dead bodies, no one believes his story, not even reptile expert Dr. Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker). Madison begins to suspect that the alligator and the dead dogs may be connected, and he suspects that Slade Pharmaceuticals could be behind it. When the alligator leaves the sewers and begins to rampage through the city, Madison and Riker team up to stop the beast.

At first glance, Alligator looks like a cheap monster movie which is simply a rip-off of Jaws. And in some ways, it is. (This wasn't even the first post-Jaws movie to use an alligator/crocodile, as there was Agowa Gonpo (1978) from Thailand and Il Fiume del Grande Caimano (1979) from Italy.) If nothing else, the basic frame-work of the story is certainly patterned after Jaws, as we have an abnormally large animal terrorizing an area and a local law-enforcement officer becomes obsessed with stopping it. As with Jaws, we also get the scientific expert character and the professional hunter character.

But, Alligator is also a smart film. The screenplay was written by Oscar nominee John Sayles, who has added a great deal to the animal on the loose structure. The movie has a definite political subtext, as we get jabs at big business and comments on urban decay. But, there's also a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor here. When a movie has a dead sewer worker named Ed Norton, you know that it's being 100% serious. (If nothing else, Sayles script deserves kudos because for once, it explains why the creature has to keep eating people.)

The above-average script has allowed director Lewis Teague (Cujo) to focus on making a scary movie, and despite some awkward editing at times, he succeeds. As with most any movie of this type, there are several set-pieces in which the alligator attacks and most of them are very effective. Relying on quick cuts and dark photography, there is a true sense of menace in some of these scenes and the alligator is very good at suddenly lunging at its victims. There is one shot in the sewers where the alligator can be glimpsed in the background which is creepy and the finale has a decent amount of suspense. But, it's the scene in the swimming pool that I remember from seeing this film for the first time over 25 years ago, and that scene still gives me chills today. Given the low-budget nature of the film, the alligator effects are convincing, and the mixture of a real alligator moving through miniatures and an animatronic one attacking actors works.

Most people have heard the urban legend concerning alligators living in the sewers of major cities, so it's not surprising that someone would make a movie on this idea. What's surprising is how good this one is. The movie mixes suspense, convincingly violent alligator attacks, and humor into a successful mix. Yes, the film looks somewhat cheap today, and so many animal films have come since then that it doesnít feel original, but the attack scenes still work and it will make you think twice about those urban legends.

Alligator comes up from the sewers onto DVD courtesy of Lionsgate. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. (IMDB.com lists the original aspect ratio at 1.85:1.) Iíve recently screened several DVDs of low-budget horror films from the early 80s and Iíve been pleasantly surprised by how good the transfers have looked. Unfortunately, Alligator doesnít join that group. The image here is noticeably grainy and somewhat hazy. The picture also looks very flat and the colors are washed out in some scenes. In short, not only does the movie look like a low-budget horror film from the 80s, but it also only looks slightly better than VHS in some scenes, most notably the opening credits. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. However, aside from some stereo effects, I noted little in the way of surround or subwoofer effects. The audio also sounds very flat and gives the impression of a mono track at times.

The Alligator DVD offers a couple of good extras. We start with an AUDIO COMMENTARY featuring director Lewis Teague, actor Robert Forster, and bookstore owner Del Howison. (?!) This is a good commentary as Teague and Forster give many recollections about the making of the film, which Howison asks many questions to keep things moving. One of my biggest questions about this film concerned the alligator effects themselves and the speakers do a fine job of explaining whatís real and whatís fake. ďAlligator AuthorĒ is a 17-minute interview with screenwriter John Sayles where he describes his involvement with the film, his ideas for the film, and his memories of the shoot. The final extra is the ORIGINAL THEATRICAL TRAILER for Alligator, presented full-frame.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long