Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Nature vs. Man...but Man started it!

We do love our films where nature tries to wipe us out, don't we.  We have disaster movies, like Earthquake and Volcano which don't really have an antagonist with a mind but rather just mother nature going about her normal everyday business...and going a little nuts.  Then there's the deliciously more exploitative 'when animals attack' movies that at their best (The Birds, Jaws) are genuinely frightening and at their worst (The Swarm, Kingdom of the Spiders) are at least a campy good time.  Then there are the ones that fall somewhere in the middle.  They fall just short of greatness but don't quite descend into all-out 'so bad its good' territory.  These are films like Piranha, Them!, and tonight's early-80s opus which hit the scene as a response to Jaws...ok, I'll say it...a ripoff of Jaws (but that doesn't mean that its bad).  It features some of my favorite horror elements...animals and lesser humans disappearing first, a tough as nails policeman, and the 'what if?' element of a stale urban legend.  It all cooks up into a tasty low brow little bit of entertainment called Alligator.

The films opens with a family of three (mom, dad, and daughter) visiting Gatorworld in Florida and enjoying the gator wrestling.  The daughter enjoys it so much that she decides she simply must have a baby alligator for a pet.  Her father isn't crazy about the idea however and, one day while the girl is at school, he flushes the gator down the toilet.  12 years pass and not only has the alligator survived in the sewer, but he has grown to gargantuan size due to eating the discarded test animal corpses that a pharmaceutical company has been experimenting on with a growth hormone.  Soon people begin disappearing and world-weary detective David Madison is brought in to find out who or what is causing this.  When the gator's presence and size has been confirmed the officials attempt to destroy it...but the gator has other plans.  He breaks up out of the sewer and begins terrorizing the city of Chicago openly.  It is up to him and reptile expert Marisa Kendell, the girl who lost the alligator originally, to stop it before it can kill again....and again...and again.

Alligator is a very simple tale despite its many plot developments.  There is a back story for both creature and scienteist, an evil pharmaceutical president responsible for the chaos, and several others who weave in and out of the story in many ways before it concludes...which makes the film feel bigger and longer than it really is (or has any right to be).  I suppose we can thank writer John Sayles for that.  He took this project relatively seriously, while still having fun with it, and that is what helps it raise itself above being merely a Jaws knock off.  Sure, it was made purely to compete with Bruce the shark, but that doesn't mean it has to stink.  So Sayles, director Lewis Teague (who would go on to do Cujo and Cat's Eye), and their cast take it upon themselves to actually try to make a good movie...and they do succeed.  It isn't ever going to resonate like Jaws did...but it really doesn't have to.  All it needs to be is a quality production about giant animal mayhem...and it succeeds and in some places, exceeds expectations.  See it once, and you'll never think about alligators in the sewers the same way again.

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