Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Alligator (1980)

I’d been hearing about alligators in sewers – usually New York City sewers – for as long as I could remember. So when Alligator (1980) came on TV, it seemed like a ripped-from-the-headlines true story to me.  Of course, people like my Dad were always quick to tell me that these stories were myths, or urban legends. But when you already believe in the possibility of vampires and werewolves, it’s not a big stretch to imagine alligators in the sewers. In fact, it’s more realistic… isn’t it?

I watched Alligator several times on TV back then. I’m still not sure exactly how it worked, but movies often seemed to be shown two or three times in relatively short order. Once on an American network, once on a Canadian network, and… maybe one or both of those channels would repeat it a few days later? I wish I could somehow look up those old TV Scenes of my childhood and see exactly what was going on. This was, of course, before my family had our first Betamax. If I could have recorded a movie like Alligator, who knows how many times I might have watched it?

I was a big fan of Jaws (1975), which I had been lucky enough to see on the big screen, and Jaws 2 (1978), which I had only seen on TV. It seemed to me (and probably a lot of other people) that Alligator was some sort of rip off of (or attempt to follow in the footsteps of) Jaws. Still, it was completely different to me and I loved it just as much. 

I was also aware, at the time, that some critics were suggesting that Alligator was some sort comedy, or satire as they might have said. I was a huge fan of Mel Brooks, having watched Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977) many times on TV, so I had a pretty good idea what a “satire” was like. Alligator did not seem anything like that. It wasn’t zany and hilarious – it was all thrills, chills, and suspense as far as I was concerned. And any movie with a giant monster in it was seriously cool to me.

For some reason, I did not see Alligator for many years – decades, actually – after that initial cluster of viewings. Jaws and Jaws 2 I bought on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, but I never even saw a copy of Alligator for sale anywhere. I was starting to think it had never been released on home video, but a quick internet search told me that it had been. Why was it so elusive?

Thankfully, I found a copy of the Lions Gate DVD somewhere on my travels a couple of years ago. It’s been sitting in my to watch pile ever since, waiting for the right mood to strike me. Last friday, it finally did.

Watching a movie like Alligator for the first time in decades is an almost religious experience. The feelings of nostalgia were close to overpowering, as memories that I didn’t even know I had came flooding back to me. Little moments and images that were locked away somewhere in the back of my brain were now dancing right in front of me. This was coupled with the shock and amazement at seeing the stuff that I didn’t remember at all. Or the stuff that I interpreted completely differently now that I have a lifetime of experiences behind me.

Alligator stars Robert Forster, who I didn’t know at all when I first watched the movie decades ago. I sort of got to know him a couple of years later, in Vigilante (1982), once I was able to rent movies. But even then, I didn’t really know who he was, other than the guy in Vigilante. Now I can appreciate how cool it is that he starred in Alligator and apparently remembered it fondly. It’s always a bit deflating when an actor says they are embarrassed by one of your favourite movies. It’s great to know that Forster liked this one.

And what’s not to like? The movie is hugely entertaining. I must admit that now I can see the straight-faced satire of John Sayles’ screenplay. Just two year earlier, Sayles wrote another great satirical Jaws inspired movie called Piranha (1978), but that’s another story. 

One thing that surprised me is the fact that Alligator takes place in Chicago. I would have sworn, probably because of the urban legends, that it was set in New York. I guess that’s just proof that memory is malleable. For years I had flashbacks of some guy who wasn’t Robert Forster chasing an alligator around the sewers of Manhattan. Oh well…

Robert Forster is great in Alligator, as a police officer with a receding hairline and a reputation for losing his partners. He stars opposite Robin Riker, who plays a reptile expert who may have inadvertently lost the baby alligator years earlier, when she was a little girl. This was Riker’s first movie role. She had done some TV prior to Alligator, and mainly went back to it afterwards. She did appear in a few interesting movies like Body Chemistry II: The Voice of a Stranger (1991) and Stepmonster (1993).
Lewis Teague, the Director of Alligator (1980), also made Fighting Back (1982). This is the poster art.Robert Forster, star of Alligator (1980), also starred in Vigilante (1982). This is the poster art.

Alligator was directed by Lewis Teague, who went on to do movies like Fighting Back (1982) – which I recall seeing during the post Death Wish 2 vigilante boom (just like Vigilante, actually), Cujo (1983) – which could almost be seen as another post Jaws giant animal attack movie, and Cat’s Eye (1985) – which is a horror anthology that I’ve always liked. The latter two films were also, of course, based on Steven King stories. 

Alligator (1980) is a #NotQuiteClassicCinema masterpiece (if such a thing can possibly exist). It’s certainly a favourite of mine, which I’m very happy to have finally rediscovered (or at least re-experienced). Giant monster movies are practically the very definition of #NotQuiteClassicCinema, as far as it relates to the Not Quite Classic Theatre of my youth. I discovered movies like Tarantula (1955) and The Deadly Mantis (1957) on that show, and as much as Alligator is a bit of a riff on Jaws, it’s also a throwback to those older giant monster movies. And that’s what makes it great to an old school monster kid like me. Mark my words: any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn that includes Alligator on the marquee is going to be a good one.