Back in 1968, a little girl was attending a show in a Florida wildlife sanctuary while she was on holiday. It all seemed to be going well until one of the alligators attacked the employee who was showing it off, mauling his leg, and although the girl was told by her parents that he was fine, the image of the injured man stuck with her. It did not deter her from picking up her own baby alligator as a pet, and taking it back to Chicago, but her father was unhappy with the creature, small as it was, and flushed it down the lavatory. Now, twelve years later, Ramon the reptile is making his presence felt, only he's a lot bigger...
Taking the cue from his script for Piranha a couple of years earlier, John Sayles came up with this similarly Jaws-inspired horror film which had the same kind of sense of humour about its hard to believe, urban myth-derived subject matter while not shying away from providing the gory people-munching that the audience expected. A lot of the film's success can be laid at the door of Sayles' witty screenplay, one of the jobs he took to pay the bills and finance his own self-directed dramas, going to show that he was one of the sharpest writers of his generation and earning a place in the hearts of quirky monster movie lovers everywhere.
This could have been a straightforward beast on the rampage flick, but Sayles fills it with bits of business that render it more eccentric than the run of the mill type of stuff that filled up video store shelves for the decade to come. He did notice how important a sense of humour was going to be for the horror films of the eighties, and there are some good laughs here, the gag early on about the big toe found in the sewer one of many solid chuckles. But that's not to say Alligator ignores its predecessors, and what this closely resembles is not so much the Steven Spielberg blockbuster, but more one of those fifties sci-fi creature features.
As in those, there is the square-jawed hero, in this case Robert Forster in pleasingly self-kidding form as Detective David Madison, leading a cast who know precisely what is needed of them and if that means they can have fun with this, then so much the better. Forster gets love interest in the shape of fifties-style Beautiful Lady Scientist Marisa, played by appealing American television actress Robin Riker, here proving that she could have enjoyed a great career on the big screen if she hadn't opted to turn to the small screen. In support there is a selection of reliable character actors including Sydney Lassick as the pet shop owner who dumps vivisected dogs in the sewers.
Those dead pooches have been pumped full of mysterious chemicals by dodgy industrialist Dean Jagger's multinational laboratories, and because Ramon has munched them all up, its capitalism's fault that he has grown to tremendous size - between thirty and forty feet. This is nothing if not a socially conscious horror, as the lizard plans its meals to be upwardly mobile, starting with the lower classes and ending up running rampant at Jagger's posh garden party as his chickens come home to roost. Or his giant alligator comes home to roost. Anyway, having this thematic resonance only serves to bolster the intelligence of what could easily have been strictly brainless, and with its mixture of the lighthearted (Henry Silva's big game hunter is a definite highlight) and the more serious (we're in no doubt that being eaten by the huge menace is not a pleasant experience) this is one of the better examples of its kind. Music by Craig Hundley.