Cinema Fearité presents 'Alligator'
Cinema Fearite says goodbye to Robert Forster by taking a look at his creature feature 'Alligator.'
Once again, Hollywood has been dealt a major blow with the passing of character actor Robert Forster. Disney fans know him as Captain Dan Holland in The Black Hole. Tarantino fans remember his resurgence as bail bondsman Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. “Twin Peaks” fans know him as Sheriff Frank Truman in the new reboot of the show. As for horror fans, they may remember him from his roles in the Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho or the William Lustig/Larry Cohen schlockfest Uncle Sam. But, most likely, they’ll know him from Alligator.
Alligator begins with a father flushing his daughter’s pet alligator, Ramon, down the toilet when he decides that taking care of the animal is too much trouble. The beast survives in the sewers, even thrives, living off of the remains of test animals that are dumped by a nearby pharmaceutical laboratory. Ramon grows to an enormous size and starts feeding on helpless people who happen to wander into the sewer in order to satisfy his voracious appetite. At first, the police think that they are dealing with a routine serial killer, but Officer David Madison (Forster) suspects the truth. With the help of a reptile expert named Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker from “Brothers”), David tries to stop the killer gator before Ramon busts out of the sewers for good.
Subgenre-wise, Alligator is a man-versus-nature film, but basically, like other great films like Grizzly and Piranha, it falls into the Jaws rip-off category. It was directed by Lewis Teague (who would parlay the animal horror experience into Cujo and Cat’s Eye a few years later) from a screenplay that writer John Sayles (The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars) based on a story that he and Frank Ray Perilli (Laserblast) cooked up. Essentially, Sayles and Teague took an age-old urban legend about flushed pets and turned it into a full-blown creature feature.
And the Jaws inspiration is obvious. Just about every plot point can be connected with one in Spielberg’s prototypical blockbuster, and most of the characters have parallels as well. Forster’s David Madison is the chief Brody of the film, the terrified-yet-determined cop who takes it upon himself to defend his town against a threat that others say isn’t real. Marisa is the Matt Hooper of the bunch, the Brainiac with all of the knowledge about what they’re up against. The Quint archetype is a big-game hunter named Colonel Brock (Henry Silva from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) who isn’t as connected to David and Marisa as Quint was to Brody and Hooper, but he suffers a similar fate as his influence.
The creature effects are another aspect of Alligator that mirrors Jaws. The mechanical alligator that Teague had built was prone to malfunctions, so the director had to show the giant monster as little as possible when shooting with the apparatus. In order to still have a monster in his monster movie, Teague took a page out of the playbook of The Giant Gila Monster and set loose a tiny alligator on a set full of miniatures. The effect is obvious, but it lends a certain charm to the production, giving it a true B-movie creature feature aesthetic. Between the trick shots and the intermittent animatronics, Teague was able to get enough alligator into the movie for it to earn its title. There’s even some impressive city street destruction.
A huge Jaws influence can also be seen (or actually heard) in the score for Alligator. The music was composed by keyboardist Craig Huxley (credited as Craig Hundley), whose synthesizer effects can be heard in everything from Prophecy and Nightmares to Poltergeist and 10 Cloverfield Lane. The similarity to John Williams’ iconic Jaws theme is almost hilarious, ominously sounding the same few repetitive notes as Ramon sneaks up on his prey in the sewers. Of course, it’s a great theme, but it inspires a serious case of déjà vu.
Alligator was shot by cinematographer Joseph Mangine (Alone in the Dark, Neon Maniacs), and while most of the photography is fairly straight-forward (including the macro photography miniature set effects), there is one thing that Mangine does that is pretty cool. The gator slinking through the sewers is shown from the animal’s perspective, but it’s not really a point-of-view shot. It’s like a Go-Pro style Gator-Cam, mounted to his shoulder sort of like a body cam, with his head and snout shown in frame. It’s a cool way to remind the audience that they’re watching a killer gator movie without having to rely too heavily on faulty mechanical props and effects. And it’s remarkably effective.
Robert Forster was one of those tough-as-nails familiar faces that graced screens both big and small. He was a respected actor, yet he still had time for movies like Alligator. And that’s a rare combination these days. He will be sorely missed.