Robert Forster plays David Madison, a Chicago detective who, at the beginning of Alligator, has had his dog stolen, his former partner killed, and his hair showing the signs of male pattern baldness. And then a giant alligator who’s been living in the sewers for the past decade or so decides to get nasty.
Viewers raised on creature features of the ‘50s will spot parallels in Alligator to Them!, and those whose monster movie touchstone is Jaws will see the similarities to that film. In fact, if you stretch it a bit, the main characters of Alligator have analogues in Jaws: Robert Forster is pretty obviously Alligator’s answer to Roy Scheider, while Henry Silva is Robert Shaw and Robin Riker is a gender-changed Richard Dreyfuss. If you stretch it a bit further, Alligator can even be compared to Frankenstein, in that the creature that has been created by wild science eventually ends up destroying the man responsible for its monstrous nature. Despite the comparisons to other films, Alligator manages to carve out a niche for itself in the giant-monster-on-the-loose sweepstakes.
Alligator was written by John Sayles, who started his film career, as did so many others, working for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. His screenplays for Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling form a sort of unofficial trilogy of smart, funny, and scary monster films. What’s really remarkable about the screenplay for Alligator is that Sayles was able to come up with some very believable reasons for a 36-foot alligator being in the sewers of Chicago. Careful viewers will note that Robin Riker’s character, while helping to solve the problem that is Ramón the alligator, is in fact also one of the parties responsible for his being under Chicago in the first place. And if you’re a classic film buff, there’s an in-joke waiting to be discovered in the graffiti in the last scene.
It’s really too bad that Sayles hasn’t returned to the monster movie in his now 30-year career as one of America’s most fiercely independent filmmakers. Sure, he’s made some great films as a writer/director, but not one of them has featured a ferocious animal chomping on people, and I feel that the movies in general are the poorer for it.
Here’s the trailer from YouTube. You KNOW that if you had seen this trailer at your local drive-in before The Hollywood Knights or The Gong Show Movie, you would have been at Alligator on opening night: