A highly enjoyable creature feature that revels in its own derivative nature and that occasionally feels like a real movie instead of a drive-in schlockfest, Alligator was one of the three above-average monster flicks that John Sayles penned during his breakout period, when he alternated between gun-for-hire gigs and early directorial efforts. Like Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981), this movie conveys a strong sense of self-awareness, often simultaneously perpetuating horror-cinema clichés and winking at them. If nothing else, Alligator is almost certainly the best movie that anyone could have made on the basis of a ridiculous urban myth. The myth in question involves the notion that baby alligators adopted as pets survive in sewers after being flushed away by owners who discard the animals, growing to gigantic size beneath city streets.
Sayles’ fanciful script adds a sci-fi flourish to this premise, tracking the lifespan of a particular baby alligator who survives by consuming animal carcasses that are illegally dumped from a laboratory conducting experiments on how to genetically increase the size of animals. Thus, once the titular creature begins his inevitable rampage, he’s a 37-foot mutant with a nasty disposition and a super-tough hide. Borrowing more than a few tropes from Jaws (1975), Sayles contrives an opponent who at first glance seems ill-equipped for defeating a gigantic monster—disgraced and unlucky policeman David Madison (Robert Forster). Once the alligator begins eating people in Chicago, David investigates and actually sees the alligator, reporting the amazing discovery to his superiors and receiving only disbelief and ridicule in return. Undaunted, David seeks help from a scientific expert, just as Sheriff Brody does in Jaws, so he teams up with reptile researcher Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker). Adding a bit of pathos to the mix, it turns out Robin owned the monstrous alligator when she was a little girl, and she was helpless to stop her parents from flushing the critter down the shitter. And later, just like in Jaws, concerned officials hire a grizzled hunter, Colonel Brock (Henry Silva), to wipe out the monster.
Yes, it’s all very by-the-numbers, and some of the FX shots used to convey the scale of the monster are questionable. But as directed by the capable editor-turned-filmmaker Lewis Teague, who previously collaborated with Sayles on the potent crime picture The Lady in Red (1979), Alligator hums along nicely, bouncing from enjoyably creepy sewer scenes in which the monster is barely seen to outrageous above-ground sequences featuring the giant gator chomping on people. Forster grounds the piece with an appealingly grumpy characterization, and Sayles ensures that gentle sight gags and verbal humor complement the bloodshed. An almost completely unrelated sequel, Alligator II: The Mutation, was released in 1991 to universal scorn.