Alligator (1980) 4K Ultra HD Review: Jaws in the Sewers

It’s always nice when a movie tells you exactly what it’s about in the title. This film is a monster movie, and that monster is an alligator. It’s big, it’s scary, and it eats people. And since Alligator was made after Jaws, it follows the template for that film as closely as it can.

But not slavishly. Because Alligator, though it’s a goofy monster movie about an alligator coming out from the sewers to eat people, was written by John Sayles. He later became known for his independent films like City of Hope and Lone Star. His early career in film was subsidized by screenplays for horror and science fiction films. He wrote Piranha, The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars, and this fun little movie.

So, Alligator follows the Jaws formula, but adds enough of its own details and twists to create a real personality. First, it is based on an old urban legend of alligators living in the sewers having been flushed down toilets. This particular alligator was owned by Marisa Kendall, who later in life becomes a reptile expert.

But she only comes to the story after being approached by Detective Madison (Robert Forster). He scours the sewers after several severed body parts begin showing up at the local water treatment facility. One of the bodies turns out to be from a pet store owner Madison knew. He was going around, stealing local pets and selling them to a chemical company. In turn, that company was experimenting on the animals and then getting them tossed into the sewer.

The experiments apparently revolved around some sort of growth serum, so the sewer alligator’s primary diet has been the corpses of chemically treated dogs. Of course, this means he is now an alligator of unusual size. Madison spots the alligator in a trip to the sewers, and despite it devouring his uniformed partner, nobody believes him. Even when a journalist follows his steps and ludicrously photographs the giant alligator while being eaten by it, the world is still skeptical.

It’s only when the titular alligator emerges from the sewers, literally smashing the sidewalk in half with its bulk, that anybody really takes the monster seriously. Then a great white hunter is brought in, Madison is pushed aside, and the entire city is on the alert at the terrible monster in their midst.

Alligator apes Jaws, but it is a very different film. That was Steven Spielberg’s calling card, and while it was basically a monster movie, it was made by an ambitious filmmaker who was not going to be pigeonholed into a genre. Lewis Teague, the director of Alligator, doesn’t care. He’s making a monster movie. It’s more ridiculous than Jaws, and sometimes more fun. And often cleverly directed – in early scenes we sometimes only catch a glimpse of the alligator stalking its victims, without soundtrack stings or zoom lenses. The mechanical alligator isn’t the most convincing, so Teague smartly doesn’t linger on it too often.

The screenplay is also cleverly written. We’re introduced to Detective Madison when he’s buying a new dog. His previous dog had been stolen. The store owner is the one supplying dogs to the chemical company and was clearly also the person who stole the detective’s dog. He’s nervous the entire conversation, but the detective never picks up on it. He has his own bad history, his partner having been murdered with his own gun. It makes everyone in his department not trust him, and he has to rely on rookies to help him out. Everywhere the movie could be generic or dull, there’s a layer of texture that makes it, instead, a little interesting.

It’s a stark contrast to the sort of low budget Jaws rip-offs that are still a mainstay with low-budget production houses today. Those movies made usually have a cast of about half a dozen, and spend all their time wandering around the woods, where filming is cheap. Alligator is an urban monster movie and has a large cast and scope that would be impossible for a modern cheap monster movie. Alligator has dozens of cops stomping in the sewers. It has kids being murdered in swimming pools. One of the scenes near the end has the alligator massacring a wedding party. It’s pretty frigging awesome.

Some of the performances are uneven. Robert Forster is a rock in the central role of Madison, but many of the surrounding players, his chief, the mayor, the rich owner of the chemical plant, are a bit cartoonish in contrast. The film has a sometimes uneasy contrast between his real pathos and the over the top action of the alligator at its center.

But it’s fun, and engaging, and that’s all this sort of film needs to be. The 4K presentation helps the low-budget production shine. There are several low-light scenes in the film, and they present perfectly well on this new release. Alligator is a high quality Jaws rip-off with a little more on its mind than just copying a blockbuster beat by beat. It’s as ridiculous as it needs to be, and a bit more interesting than one might expect.

Alligator has been released on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray by Scream factory. The release includes three discs: a 4K disc with the film and an audio commentary by Director Lewis Teague and the late Robert Forster; a Blu-ray with the film and several extras, and a second Blu-ray with the television version of the film, which adds several minutes of (rather inconsequential) scenes to the movie. The Blu-ray of the theatrical version includes several video extras. “Wild in the Streets” (25 min) is an interview with director Lewis Teague; “Gator Guts, The Great River, and Bob” (23 min), an interview with Bryan Cranston, who worked on the film; “Alligator Author” (18 min), an archive interview with John Sayles; “It Walks Among Us” (10 min), a new interview with John Sayles; “Luck of the Gator” (13 min), an interview with special makeup effects artist Robert Short; “Everybody in the Pool” (8 min), an interview with actress Robin Riker. There are also stills, trailers, and TV spots.

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Kent Conrad

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