Kind of a weirdo amalgam of The Search for Bridey Murphy, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, and The Fly, The Alligator People stars Beverly Garland as a nurse who, while under deep hypnosis, tells the story of being abandoned by her husband on their honeymoon. She searches for months for him, finally finding a clue that leads her to the swamps of Louisiana, where she discovers that maybe she was better off not knowing what happened to him.
The horror and science fiction cinema of the 1950s is fascinating, because it shows the fears that were lurking underneath the placid façade of the “I Like Ike” decade. The Alligator People touches on two of the more prevalent fears exploited by Hollywood in the 1950s, communism and the effects of radiation. Like I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Alligator People shows that, even when you think that you know someone well enough to marry them, you can never really know another person completely. Anyone could be a Communist, an alien, a pod person, or in the case of this film, a half-reptile mutant hybrid brought about by injections of a serum made from alligator glands. As if that weren’t bad enough, the film’s resident mad scientist decides that the only way to possibly reverse the effects of the glandular injections is to use radiation. So, when the film came out, it had a pretty good shot at making viewers squirm—or at least it would have, if it hadn’t been so goofy.
The Alligator People was made to round out a double-bill featuring the sequel to one of 20th-Century Fox’s biggest hits from the previous year, The Fly. Since Return of the Fly was going to be shot and released in black-and-white Cinemascope, Fox needed another similarly-formatted film. So, The Alligator People is also a black-and-white Cinemascope production. It fails to utilize the format to any great advantage, but to be fair, it was on the bottom-half of a double feature and done on the cheap.
Star Beverly Garland was no stranger to this sort of nonsense, having already been in such films as It Conquered the World and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon. Lon Chaney, Jr. is around too, this time losing both the “Jr.” from his name in the billing and a hand to the ‘gators. Also hanging about is Frieda Inescort (The Return of the Vampire, The She Creature) as Bev’s mother-in-law. Director Roy del Ruth’s career stretched back into the silents, and he was the director of the first American sound horror film, The Terror, from 1928. He also directed the first version of The Maltese Falcon from 1931, Topper Returns, and one of my favorite Christmas-themed movies, It Happened on Fifth Avenue. The Alligator People also features an early monster makeup from legendary makeup maestro Dick Smith.
Speaking of the makeup, until the last few minutes of the movie, the “monsters” really just look like guys with advanced cases of plaque psoriasis. After the super-duper dose of radiation, though, we get to see this guy:
Yeah, it’s a fairly stupid looking monster costume, and any time the actor wearing this getup moves, you see wrinkles in the rubber. But it is, for whatever reasons, memorable, and if you’d been a pre-teen in 1959, it probably would have scared you half to death.
Looks like I’m getting long-winded again (as I so often do), so let me wrap up with a few more observations that will make sense to you after you’ve seen the film:
1) Lon Chaney, Jr. (in this film at least) looks like the absolute last person with whom you’d want to hitch a ride into the swamp.
2) I’m speaking in generalizations here, but I would think that it’s best not to sit on a box clearly marked as containing Cobalt 60.
3) What was up in the 1950s with people getting into and out of cars using the passenger-side door only? This isn’t the first film in which I’ve noticed this peculiar habit, which is why it struck me so hard. I find it exceptionally strange for the driver of a car to slide across the front seat and get out of the opposite door and then re-enter the car in the same manner. What gives?
The full feature is available on YouTube, but it’s the pan-and-scan version, so if you’re a purist, you’d do best to avoid it. If you’re not so picky, you can watch it here (and do it quickly, lest it be taken down before you get to it).
Otherwise, here’s the trailer from YouTube, which contains the single best line in the film, uttered by Lon Chaney, Jr.: