Part of the 1980 Project
Before he was known for his work as a writer-director of socially conscious independent films, John Sayles was a screenwriter with a deft touch and a tongue firmly planted in cheek at homaging (okay, ripping off) the big genre hits of the day for B-movie producer Roger Corman. Resulting films include the Joe Dante helmed Jaws inspired Piranha, giving John Dillinger the Bonnie and Clyde treatment in The Lady in Red, and the Star Wars on a Corman budget, Battle Beyond the Stars. In 1980 he wrote what would be his penultimate genre screenplay, Alligator (1980, Lewis Teague) [he also provided the screenplay for 1981's The Howling (reuniting him with Dante)], which in a bit of meta reflexivity is a satirical homage to the many Jaws imitators (which included the aforementioned Sayles' penned Piranha) as well as the rogue cop genre that was de rigour at the time. As with Piranha and The Howling, there is a real affection for genre tropes on display as well as a sense of humor making Alligator a enjoyable B-movie.
With a day's worth of stubble perpetually attached to his face, a pained grimace of an expression (due to the actor's real life spinal meningitis), and his gun holster positioned a la David Toschi/Bullitt, future Academy Award nominee Robert Forester is the detective who investigates a series of mysterious deaths in the St. Louis sewers that could be the work of a gigantic alligator. Of course, nobody believes him, and his edgy nature will get him kicked off the force by his Chief, played by the second Academy Award nominee in the cast, The Godfather part II's Michael V. Gazzo. Forester does amazing work, allowing himself little ego as he plays up the whinier, more anti-social aspects of these types of cops while still hitting the sheets with the hot scientist played by Robin Riker pretty quickly, and even impresses her mom! Providing a MVP cameo is Henry Silva as the crazed military leader who is brought in when the shit really hits the fan. Silva (and Sayles' script) emphasizes his fetishistic destructive side and plays the role with the intensity level turned to eleven .
While lacking Steven Spielberg's knack for suspense filmmaking and Joe Dante's knack for gonzo mayhem, director Lewis Teague, who directed the Sayles' scripted The Lady in Red, performs admirably, allowing even the more wilder aspects of the plot to play out as matter of factly as possible. And this is a film whose plot revolves around a little girl who dumps the baby alligator she got at an amusement park down the toilet at her dad's insentience, where it feeds on illegally experimented dogs that the science lab she works for fifteen years later are dumping into the sewer, making it grow to a massive size. While no one will label the film atmospheric, there is a particularly effective shot when Forester and his doomed partner go down to the sewer to investigate, and unbeknowest to them, the alligator lurks above. We see the alligator very subtly as a flashlight flickers, a scene reminiscent of some of John Carpenter's more effective technique of maximizing suspense via framing and lighting. Teague would go on to have a strange though not very distinctive career, helming two Stephen King adaptations (Cujo, Cat's Eye), the quickie Romancing the Stone follow-up The Jewel of the Nile, and Navy Seals as well as several made for TV productions.
Later in the year, John Sayles first film as a writer-director Return of the Secaucus Seven would be released and by the end of 1981 he would, with the exception of some work doing uncredited screenwriting touch-ups for big studio fare (and full credit for Clan of the Cave Bears), focus primarily on directing his own scripts. By the middle of the decade, Drive-In attendance began to dwindle with the burgeoning home video market and with studios focusing their efforts primarily on genre fare and making their own larger scale attempts to replicate successful films either by borrowing liberally from successful templates (resulting in stuff like Krull) or increased sequels to existing franchises, these more modest type of films started becoming regulated to straight to video status. Another unfortunate trend that makes Alligator an anomaly today is that horror films are rarely allowed the chance to inject some humor, other than a wise cracking sidekick to the final girl, a prime example being that the Piranha remake due this year (in 3-D, natch) is to be directed by Alexandre Aja, whose prior films include the self-serious The Hills Have Eyes remake (which I kind of liked) and High Tension. I'm betting that the tone for the remake will be a 180 degree turn from Dante's film. Though in fairness, his Mirrors was hilarious...although that was probably unintentional.