Tuesday 12 June 2012

The Alligator People

Snapping Yarns

The Alligator People US 1959
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
20th Century Fox Region 1

Woohoo! Every now and again I discover a movie which I know I’m going to think of fondly for the rest of my life.

The Alligator People was made FOR 20th Century Fox in their new cinemascope format to play as the bottom half of a double bill with Return Of The Fly. I didn’t know that much about the film until now (other than it presumably had some kind of “alligator people” in it) since it’s not a movie which comes up in conversation too often. I only wanted to see it because I loved the music.

Years ago the Monstrous Movie Music label released a recording of the score to Creature From The Black Lagoon with a 16 minute suite from The Alligator People on it. I exchanged emails with the album’s producer, David Sheckter, at the time and his critique of the film left me in no doubt that it just wasn’t very good. However... it’s like being bitten by a bug (as opposed to a croc or an alligator I guess) and when I found out recently that it had been issued on DVD, I stumped up the princely sum of five quid for it!

I’m happy to report that The Alligator People is terrible... but in that good way that only true afficionados of 1950s weird science B-movies are really going to relish. Hopefully that’s a large chunk of my readership though.

The film starts and the score ushers in a dark musical mood punctuated with stabs... well, more like harmonious riffs... on an electric violin (yeah, that’s right, 1950s electric violin... in your face modern instrumentation mavens) and we soon join a psychologist and his “specialist” friend as they discuss our heroine Joyce Webster (played by Beverly Garland) who agrees to once again be hypnotised and given truth serum as part of a social “experiment” for our friendly shrink. But the doctor is really trying to decide whether to reveal to her that she is living a secret identity and has blanked the memories of the past few years from her mind. This is why he has his psychoanalyst friend come in, to hear what’s happened to her in her own words and help decide whether this could really be a true buried memory... and then we join the movie proper, as it’s told in flashback from the long held cinematic sanctuary of the “psychoanalyst’s couch”!

We start off with two newlyweds, Joyce and her husband Paul, on the evening of their wedding as they take a train journey to their honeymoon destination. The two were in service together in the war (Korean?) and she doesn’t know much about her mysterious boyfriend's past. All she knows is that all his bones and body were broken beyond repair but that, thanks to some good “doctoring up”, he is now a fighting fit, poster-boy of a husband who shows no signs of having ever been bruised... let alone in a war. All is well for just a few minutes into the movie. Paul is just about to tell Joyce about some big secret in his past when tragedy strikes! As they are reading a load of well timed, well wishing, congratulatory telegrams which suddenly turn up and interrupt their conversation (at just the crucial moment of husbandly revelation), Paul reads one which upsets him enough that he leaves the train at the next stop and runs out on Joyce... leaving her for good.

A year or so flies by between shots with Joyce trying to dig up clues to her husbands past in order to find him and her one final clutched straw leads to a big house in a swamp run by an old lady, her butler and their drunk servant Manon, as played by Lon Chaney Jr (with a hook replacing one of his hands after an alligator once bit it off). After having to stay at the house overnight with everyone denying knowledge of ever having heard of her husband (and finding she’s locked in her room so she doesn’t see what she’s not supposed to) she soon starts exploring strange things which have been happening... like a shadowy, scaly figure playing the piano in the night who leaves wet footprints and handprints where he’s been. It doesn’t take her long to find out the woman running the house is Paul’s mother and the scaly “thing” is... prepare yourself dear reader... Paul!

Turns out the “friend-of-the-family-kindly-and-well-meaning-but-mad-doctor” in the next swamp is running a community of “alligator people”. People like Paul who he has cured and made whole again due to his timely invention of an alligator serum which allows the human body to mimic the limb replicating systems of such reptilian creatures. However, on Paul’s wedding night, he realised there was a long term side-effect kicking in which rendered his good work null and void until he can “iron out” certain little wrinkles in his “cure”. Yeah, you guessed it, the patients bodies (and brains) slowly start to turn into those of an alligator.

Okay, so that’s as much of the silly plot line I’m gonna tell you for this one... if you want to know what happens next you’ll have to watch the movie. One last thing I will say as to the story content, however, is that I’ve noticed a lot how much comic-book character creator’s used to take influence from the movies (Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s “The Joker” in the Batman comics, for example, is obviously based on Conrad Veidt’s “look” in The Man Who Laughs) and Stan Lee, I think, used to take a lot of ideas from B-movie science fiction he was watching just a few years before he started concocting his “new wave” of super-heroes which, today, are still the figurehead characters of the Marvel Comics brand. The scaly appearance Paul wanders around in for the majority of the movie, which is a very good make-up job by the way, is very much like Jack Kirby’s original drawings of The Thing in The Fantastic Four comic and the back story of the unfortunate, half-man half-reptile creatures in this film is definitely reflected in the origins of one of Spider-Man’s earliest foes, The Lizard, who in the comics looks more like the final phase version of The Alligator People than he does in the new Spider-Man movie coming out this July.

The acting in this one is terrible... but the actors are all trying their best and the lines they have to say in some parts are so clich├ęd and awful that the movie becomes really entertaining. Lon Chaney Jr’s probably the best actor there but, even though it’s written in that this character spends a lot of his time drunk (just like Chaney used to on the film sets he was on), the acting is so, let’s say “powerful” that, against the unintentionally minimalist acting of the majority of the other characters, he seems really over the top in comparison. He’s pretty much playing the “human villain” of the movie, so you’ll spend some of the short running time of the film wondering when and how he’s going to get his alligator-hating butt kicked before the allotted running time comes to an end.

The final transformation of Paul into a full-blooded “Alligator Man” in the last five minutes or so is... hilarious. Remember the old Star Trek episode Arena? Where Kirk fought the Gorn and it was really a man in a lizard suit? Well that costume looks like a masterpiece next to the ridiculous, overly fake alligator head which comprises the final fait accompli of the monster mayhem in this movie. But it’s just so fun you’ll love him escaping from the lab and running around the jungle, upright on two legs, like a mad man... err... mad gator.

Seriously people, if you’re in to what I would generally term the “second tier” Universal-style atomic-science-gone-wrong B-features that were around at the time like The Mole People and The Monolith Monsters (where the threat is slowly growing calcium deposits on a big bit of rock which threatens to topple over and accidentally crush people... absolute genius) then you’re sure to like the laughable brilliance of The Alligator People. How can you not fail to be entertained? Plus it’s got a great score too. This film does not deserve to be forgotten. Give it a watch if you can get it cheap!


  1. This is a fairly late film for radiation movies (1959, after so many other radioactive monsters had stomped around) but it's one of the fun mad-scientist-does-radiation films.

    CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955) and THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN (1960) also share the Post-WWII-use-of-scientists theme, but these two are for less-scrupulous reasons! Fun stuff, though. ATOM BRAIN is also an early CSI film, too. TRANSPARENT is a bank-heist film.

    I'd point your comment of "Lon Jr best actor" into George MacReady's repertoire... He's the bad guy in PATHS OF GLORY; GILDA's husband (and the bad guy boss to Glenn Ford); THE DETECTIVE STORY with Kirk Douglas; several dozen others, too. Big-time films but yes 'only' a supporting actor.

    Then there's Bruce Bennett, also with a long catalog of classics, including the unwanted tag-along miner in TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, but was with Bogart in DARK PASSAGE and SAHARA too; MILDRED PIERCE, NORA PRENTISS, and a few dozen others.

    Frieda Inescort was the female lead in the wonderful RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE with Lugosi and his cape, THE LETTER with Bette Davis (Frieda's the one that doesn't kill all the men!), THE UNDERWORLD STORY and many more.

    Chaney's attempted-rape scene was pretty interesting to include because those were still non-gratis in Hollywood. The lofty status of this film, however, allowed those to slide along into double-features and drive-in's.

    But I gotta love ALLIGATOR PEOPLE when they could only afford one suit!

    And great kudos are earned for your props to MONOLITH MONSTERS - a most inventive way to do a cheap and fun film.

    1. HI again Chuck.

      Don't forget Chaney's "big time" with Of Mice And Men... although he'll always be Lawrence Talbot to me. ;-)

      I'll have to keep an eye out for The Amazing Transparent Man methinks.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Y'know, your first comment was BEST PERFORMANCE IN THIS FILM and, in thinking about it, yes, his was the best performance in the film. The most memorable one. And OF MICE AND MEN is a grand performance for Jr, who should have fated differently without all the walls built for him by dad's pals.

    I have waded thru your reviews and see you did cover ATOM BRAIN, a film I laughed thru. AMAZ TRANSPARENT is rather a hoot - it is a good bookend to Ralph Meeker's KISS ME DEADLY because they both end, well, rather explosively, let's say.

    Have you located CULT OF COBRA WOMAN? This was in the Ult SciFi Collection with MOLE and MONOLITH, etc. If you're a soldier on leave in Morocco and Tangiers, whatcha gonna do?!! "Let's find a forbidden club that has forbidden entertainment..." Yeah. Right. Great fun, though. It's kinda got a tanna-leaf curse going for it... sorta.

    1. Ha! Yeah, I have that double box collection.

      Pretty fun movies. Love The Mole People especially.

      Thanks for reading. :-)

  3. I love that Ult SciFi collection. BestBuy did Vol 1 in (maybe??) 2006? 2005? Something like this. It was a summer release and they did some marketing as a "Best Buy exclusive". But their marketing wasn't much beyond a local store's doors or local circulars, OR if customers idly wandered thru Best Buy's fairly new (and limited) website.

    Still, before that Christmas, it sold like hotcakes and was their biggest selling package.

    They 'fronted' the money for the remastering efforts and this package indeed contains some great prints. Even at the time, the $20 price for 5 disks screamed GREAT VALUE. Much less $20 for such luxurious remasterings.

    My concern was, "How can anyone else find copies, though? BestBuy isn't letting anyone else sell it." True. BestBuy wanted to recoup its expenses by having exclusives sales.

    Very understandable. And I agreed - if they're going to put up the front money, why shouldn't they get profits?

    The next summer or spring, Amazon started carrying it.

    "And where's Vol 2?" That didn't get released for another year - so there was about a 2-year lull but then, BestBuy didn't keep exclusive sales very long - just thru that Christmas season, and it was immediately showing up on Amazon lists in January.

    The next year, they offered both collections in a single box.

    Interestingly, the 2-vol collection is $43 (??) which is a couple of dollars higher than the two individual's original $19.99 price!

    BestBuy announced, two years ago, they were cutting DVD-Shelf Space by more than half in their stores. "DVDs aren't selling, so we're using the space for iPods." Basically.

    But DVDs aren't just "not selling". They're not being produced FOR sale. It's really tough to buy something when no one makes it, but it's true - "they aren't selling". Du-uh.

    Sort of like, "The cart refuses to drag the horse along" though. This seems to be the mentality of so-called DVD studios.

    There is an interested DVD-seller development. A company called "Mill Creek Entertainment" (which I believe has at least one other similarly named 'company') has a lot of CLASSIC 25, 50 or 100 collections. These are Horror, Noir, SciFi - all kinds. And they're all Public Domain prints - ie, generally awful.

    However, this group will find duplicate prints and compare them, and their collections have contained "the best quality" of duplicate prints. And these are good values although most DVD collectors will have purchased earlier prints. I tested some out (NOIR and SCI FI) for a couple of rare George Raft films and THE WASP WOMAN, which has a pretty crisp video-print.

    1. Yeah, I got the two collections in a single box version. It's beautiful packaging.

      I tend to pick up most of my US discs at any of the regular monthly Film Fairs in the UK but, even if I get them off Amazon.com and pay postage, they still often work out cheaper (and often cleaner transfers) than the UK R2 versions off the shelf over here.