Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Forster pours himself into the role as if it were Oscar-worthy material, playing it with dedication and sincerity throughout, and this gives the film a touch of class even in its silliest moments."

Today, when dedicated production outfits ensure a continuous flow of giant monster movies and ever-improving software is even allowing amateurs to get in on the game, it's easy to forget how thin on the ground they were in the late 20th Century. Alligator was one of the first of a new generation aiming to cash in on the success of Jaws (to which it owes a lot, both visually and musically) and although it arrived before the home video boom really started, it went on to find a natural home on VHS. Made on a low budget and hastily assembled, it looks even rougher with age, yet there's a surprising amount to recommend it. If you can overlook the improbable plot, awkward cutting and patches of dodgy dialogue, it's quite watchable, and you don't have to be a monster movie fan to enjoy it.

Much of this is down to the central performance by Robert Forster, who appears in almost ever scene as troubled police officer David, a man still haunted by the death of his partner a few years ago, and now worried by the fact that he's losing his hair. Forster pours himself into the role as if it were Oscar-worthy material, playing it with dedication and sincerity throughout, and this gives the film a touch of class even in its silliest moments. Other actors notably improve in his presence, creating a set of characters who feel human and relatable and enable some suspension of disbelief.

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Essentially, David is the sort of cop who might fit easily into any number of conventional crime dramas, yet has woken up to find himself in very different territory - as if Godzilla had wandered into an episode of The Wire. This particular giant monster - which looks pretty good because most of the footage of it is composited from shots of real alligators, with minimal model work - starts out as a child's pet, flushed down the toilet by an inconsiderate father, and grows the way it does because sinister scientists are conducting experiments with hormones which get flushed into the sewer system. It even has a name - Ramon - and in the tradition of Fifties monster movies invites a degree of sympathy. It's not its fault, after all, that it finds itself in this situation. In eating sewer workers, police officers and eventually those above ground, it's only following its instincts.

Curiously, though movie monsters often display a preference for the flesh of the exploitative and corrupt, Ramon mostly restricts himself to dining on members of the lower classes, making a beeline for the caterers when attending a wedding. In this, the film's most dramatic action scene, he also gets to do a bit of tail-swinging, resulting in a series of men somersaulting over tables and another inexplicably dropping from the sky at the other side of the party. This scene is further enlivened by the fact that there's clearly just one woman providing all the screams.

"An alligator that size would starve in a week. There's no sunlight!" says herpetologist Marisa (Robin Riker) as she contemplates the sewers, leading one to wonder if she thinks alligators photosynthesise. She's partly there to be a love interest for David, of course, yet she retains a lot of independence for a heroine of the period and foreshadows the changes about to take place around women's roles in action films. Forster's approach to his character's insecurities is a refreshing change from the macho heroes of the Seventies and makes the affection between them feel real, if a little awkwardly timed.

Far superior to its sequel, which is hinted at in the closing scene, Alligator is competently directed by Lewis Teague, who would go on to make cult favourite Wedlock with Rutger Hauer. It has plenty of problems but delivers well on its central premise and a must for those with an interest in the history of the genre.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2019
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Alligator packshot
A discarded baby alligator grows into a giant in the sewers of Chicago and then emerges to go on a rampage.

Director: Lewis Teague

Writer: John Sayles

Starring: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael V Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Sydney Lassick, Jack Carter

Year: 1980

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US


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