Robert Forster’s cop has a hairy problem…
Marisa’s pet baby alligator was flushed down the loo 10 years ago. Now it’s possibly back and bringing her a romance and a whole lot of trouble.
Alligator (1980) – Trailer, GBW PODCAST
For men vs nature movies somewhere nestled on the list of these films, and found between The Swarm (1978) and Venom (1981), is Alligator (1980). This film is one of those much-loved parody movies. The lead has Robert Forster as David Madison and he’s a cop with a shady past. Madison has a shot (no pun intended) at redemption as he hunts down a super huge alligator in the sewers of Chicago.
This film is a wonderful fun take on this genre and it delightfully homages it all… with a big game hunter in a safari suit, a romance, a disastrous wedding reception, a scheming mayor, a cop badge taken away, an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company and even a wee burst of the Jaws (1975) movie theme. That’s just for starters, and it’s an undeniable movie pleasure from start to finish.
But despite all those cliches, Forster gives the script its all. This is in his earnest, candid performance that has you believing in his character as the often troubled David Madison. Madison has to convince everyone of the truth that there is an alligator in the sewers. And you would easily trust him, even if you hadn’t seen the evidence for yourself. Forster gives an even more passionate portrayal as a man vs alligator than when he was a man vs an avalanche – and he was also up against his then on-screen’s lover’s ex-husband David, Rock Hudson – in Avalanche (1978), just two years earlier.
Now back to Alligator, and first it’s a flashback to 1968 as a wee girl, Marisa is watching an alligator show at the zoo with her mum and dad. She seems to know quite a lot about those reptiles but she and her family still watch in horror as an alligator mauls an employee in bloody scenes.
Afterwards, she pesters her parents to buy her a baby alligator. She promises to give it to a zoo once it grows up and she calls her pet, Ramon. One day when she’s at school, her father flushes the baby alligator down the loo. He tells his wife they will tell Marisa, that the alligator died “like they did with the hamster”… After some chilling music, we see the baby alligator alive in the sewers.
Twelve years later – in the film’s present-day – in Chicago, cop David Madison (Forster) asks a kindly pet shop owner for advice about his puppy. Instead, the shop owner, Gutchel (Sydney Lassick) gives Madison some advice on how to cover up his thinning hair problem. This scene has the first of several in-jokes throughout the movie relating to Forster’s hair, some of which were apparently ad-libbed by this actor.
Madison then goes to investigate a finding at the sewer treatment plant, as a human arm has been found. This is just one of a slew of body parts found recently and it appears that the arm belongs to a missing sewer worker.
A dead dog has also been found, and is the same breed and has similar markings to a woman’s missing dog. It’s only one of three of this type registered in Chicago but it’s bloody huge. Madison learns that the missing dog is supposed to be really wee and used to fit a tiny jumper! Then all is revealed, as we discover Gutchel has a sideline in selling stray dogs to a worker at the local pharmaceutical company.
This worker is injecting growth hormones into stray puppies. He gives Gutchel a bin bag full of dead dogs to dispose of. Then Gutchel throws them into the sewer. One dead dog lands on a ledge, so Gutchel goes down in the dark – cue spooky and eerie music – to throw it into the water. As he does this, he is being observed by an alligator who then attacks him and then Gutchel meets a grisly end.
Madison visits the pharmaceutical company to ask about the dead dog. He asks if it’s possible that this breed can double in size. The pharmaceutical worker is brusque and abrasive with Madison and insists they act professionally at all times with their test subjects and their remains.
At a press conference, it’s feared there is a serial killer, but one reporter Kemp (Bart Braverman), is keener to find out more about the mysterious death of Madison’s one-time work partner. At work, Madison needs someone to help him investigate the sewers, needless to say, everyone has something to do.
This is as they know about his past work partner, and this is thanks to a recent front-page newspaper article written by Kemp. A young cop volunteers, but first, the pair must outwit and overcome an unhinged man. This man threatens to blow the police department up with dynamite, and the dynamite is attached to a clock that is counting down by the second. They arrest him and disarm him taking away and confiscating these weapons.
On checking the sewer with the young cop, all seems well until Madison and he are chased by the 36 foot (11 m) alligator. The reptile is now super huge as it has been eating those dead dogs from the pharmaceutical company. The alligator kills Madison’s partner. Then Madison wakes up in a hospital and then discharges himself against medical advice. Chief Clark (Michael V Gazzo) thinks he’s needing help from a psychiatrist after seeing an alligator.
Meanwhile, Kemp finds out about Madison’s belief that there is the alligator in the sewers, as he learns about this from a nurse. He goes to the sewers as he’s also sceptical about Madison’s claims and he is also killed by this reptile. But his camera is found and photographs prove Madison’s story about this alligator’s existence.
Madison and Clark go and chat with the local alligator expert, Marisa (Robin Riker). The city is now in a panic as the alligator eats even more people – including a cop and a wee kid – after leaving the sewers. Brock, a big-game hunter (Henry Silva) comes to give assistance… but can he succeed where others failed?
This film parody deserves a firm place in the limelight. This is even when compared to other parody films such as Airplane (1980) and This is Spinal Tap (1984). It’s well written and performed by Forster and has a fabulous supporting cast. Forster’s performance was one of the best that I’ve seen him in so far. Henry Silva adds a deadpan delivery to lines, such as this one on seeing the alligator shot at by a police boat…”It’s a reptile, not a submarine.”
Riker is good support for Forster, and they have a sweet on-screen romantic chemistry. We then believe that Marisa is possibly the same wee kid from the opening scenes after we meet her mother. Her mother is also a wee bit flirty with Forster’s cop. As Marisa, Riker also makes a few comments about Forster’s hairline, but these are delivered in a warm and affectionate way.
It was also to the film’s credit that – like a certain Hitchcock film – Sydney Lassick, one of the more recognisable cast names was killed off so early on in the film. Lassick had back then been acclaimed for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). His character’s on-screen death added to the unpredictability of the film. Like the snake in Venom, at times this crocodile also had an uncanny ability to differentiate between the good and the bad guys in later scenes. But after a wee kid was killed, you knew no one was safe.
It’s implied from the prologue to this film, that this killer alligator is this redhead’s pet alligator, Ramon who has also grown up. This fact however is never said directly and Marisa never mentioned her childhood pet as an adult. But this small possible continuity error adds to the suspense… and perhaps so your imagination could run riot.
This film has a large number of tropes, cliches and familiar moments. It also adds some fun with Chekov’s guns and there are some more creative and original suspense ridden scenes. These Chekov’s guns often come from more surprising moments in the film and are effortlessly woven into the later plot in later scenes.
This film’s screenplay was written by John Sayles, who worked with Roger Corman in his early days. Sayles also wrote the splendid fish vs man film Piranha (1978), the space opera Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and the horror The Howling (1981). And folks, there is a sequel out there, Alligator II: The Mutation (1991). I’ve read it is just a rehash of this original, but it’s a shame Sayles ironic and satiric writing was not used once more.
I’m also sad they didn’t make a prequel with that safari suited Henry Silva. He could have taken the lead, no, the titular lead in a further film. So picture this film, which I am tentatively titling Brock the Alligator Hunter. It’s a prequel where Silva gets his teeth into this character’s origin story, where he’s out for revenge on a particular alligator for killing his wife. But back to the film that was made… and in Alligator, where Silva gives a priceless performance. And he proved that his character was the perfect candidate for further parody, in his short and snappy appearance.
Weeper Rating: 😦😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: 0 /10
The Cormanverse Blogathon 2022
This film was added to my Cormanverse Blogathon 2022 with Barry from Cinematic Catharsis. Other films and TV reviews with this cast include Robert Forster in Avalanche, Murder She Wrote, Hotel, and Magnum PI. Henry Silva in The Manchurian Candidate and The Streets of San Francisco. Sydney Lassick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Robin Riker in Fantasy Island and Murder She Wrote. Michael V Gazzo in The Fall Guy and Columbo.