While slogging through the swamps toward Mardi Gras, Judge George Hatch held his Samsonite luggage high, hoping "them gators" wouldn't sniff out a relative.
"If the quicksand doesn't getcha, the moccasins will. Then there's them gators! Them, dirty, nasty, slimy gators!"—Manon, caretaker at The Cypresses
I feel lucky to have grown up during the 1950s, when low-budget horror and science fiction exploitation films were at their peak, and I was able to see them on the big screen. As a kid I wasn't really aware of the social and political subtext of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or those with loss-of-identity undercurrents, including The Fly and I Was a Teenage Werewolf. I went for the monsters. But yesterday's "horrors" frequently provide the biggest big belly laughs today, and The Alligator People is a genuine gut-buster.
Facts of the Case
Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland) is a perky, well-oriented young psychiatric assistant working at the Webley Sanitarium. When she agrees to a "narco-hypnotic" experiment, Dr. McGregor (Douglas Kennedy) discovers unbelievably horrific memories buried deep in her subconscious. He calls in a colleague, Dr. Lorimer (Bruce Bennett), to help determine if there's any truth to these nightmarish fantasies or if she's suffering "anxiety neuroses and amnesiac withdrawal" from events that really occurred. They attach her to a lie detector, and both men listen in awe as Jane tells her story—or rather, that of Joyce Hatten Webster.
Joyce's husband, Paul Webster, mysteriously disappeared on the first night of their honeymoon, and she has spent months trying to track him down with the help of private investigators and old Army records. When she discovers his fraternity pin, the local chapter gives her an address in Bayou Landing, a foreboding "little whistle stop in the middle of the Louisiana swamp country." Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), caretaker of The Cypresses plantation, arrives to pick up a package labeled "Radioactive: Cobalt 60" and offers her a ride. Mrs. Lavinia Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort), mistress of the estate, claims to have no knowledge of "this Paul Webster person" and asks her to leave immediately. Since the next train won't arrive for another day, however, she offers Joyce some Southern hospitality: dinner and any other conveniences she might enjoy—behind a locked door! When the stereotypical black maid arrives, Joyce begs her for information. All Luann can tell her is "This is a trouble house…real, deep, big trouble. Like the old country woman in Big Bayou say, Miz Hawthorne, she deal with the evil one. She got big sorrow."
Shortly afterward, Joyce hears a concerto being played, and (miraculously) there's a key on her side of the door, so she sets out to investigate, delivering some appropriately Gothic narration along the way. "Who else could be living in this strange household? Who would be playing a piano in the dead of night? I couldn't rid myself of the premonition that each step I took was leading me closer to the secret hidden within these shadows." She soon discovers that Dr. Mark Sinclair (George Macready) has developed a serum drawn from the pituitary glands of alligators, a "cure" that will help horribly mangled accident victims regenerate bones and tissue and even grow new limbs. But there have been delayed and unexpectedly bizarre side effects. He's trying to use "Cobalt 60 Radiation Therapy" to reverse the changes. "Hmmm," thinks Joyce. Just before their marriage, Paul was nearly killed in a plane crash, and the description of his injuries noted that "nearly every bone was broken…his skin was in shreds…and 90 percent of his face had been burned away." Could there be a connection between her husband's sudden disappearance and Dr. Sinclair's serum and radiation therapy?
Well, the artwork on the cover of Fox's impressive and long-awaited DVD release of The Alligator People just might give you a clue. I find myself amazed at the number of low-budget films that were shot in the comparatively expensive CinemaScope process, like Lions Gate's recent issue of High School Confidential. Fox's widescreen anamorphic transfer of The Alligator People is absolutely stunning, and does the film justice. The sinister and malevolent atmosphere of the Cypresses estate and the surrounding swampland shimmers with deep blacks and sharply defined contrast. Karl Struss won an Oscar for Sunrise (1927), and his cinematography in this film indicates that he hadn't lost his touch. If there is any drawback to the enhanced quality of the images, it appears in close-ups of the cheesy make-up effects and the obviously rubber "reptilian" shirt Paul Webster sports late in the film. The "scales" on his face look like they were drawn on with an eyebrow pencil; and I won't even mention the alligator head mask seen in the film's final moments.
As Joyce wanders the corridors of Dr. Sinclair's clinic looking for clues, burly male nurses (read: 1950s beefcake in tight white t-shirts and trousers) escort other victims adapting to the excruciatingly painful "healing stages of their transformation" back to their rooms. Talk about cheap. Makeup master Dick Smith (The Exorcist: Special Edition) must have worn that eyebrow pencil down to a stub, because the faces of these men are simply covered with flat, white planks shaped like ping-pong paddles. Even us kids got a laugh out of this one in 1959; today, it's a howler. I saw The Alligator People when it was bottom-billed with Return of the Fly, and I still think it's the better of the two. And as a pure popcorn movie, it holds up surprisingly well.
Most people compare The Alligator People to The Fly and I Married a Monster from Outer Space, films that centered attention on a strong female lead trying to determine what happened to her husband. I also found a connection to H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, filmed under that title in 1977 and 1996. The truly horrific adaptation, however, remains the 1933 version starring Charles Laughton, titled Island of Lost Souls. These all featured the now-clichéd "mad scientist" tampering with nature at the expense of other human beings. Dr. Sinclair, though, is not mad at all, and his goal is more benevolent, as he tries to restore the "human" in humanity, but with tragic results. It sounds a little trite, yes; but I found it a welcome and unexpected twist.
Beverly Garland was the Queen of Screams during the 1950s, starring in such B-movie classic as Curt Siodmak's Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956), along with Roger Corman's Not of the Earth (1957) and It Conquered the World (1957). Her big break came that same year when she co-starred with Frank Sinatra in The Joker Is Wild. She also copped the lead in Decoy, as policewoman Casey Jones, a decade and a half before Angie Dickinson assumed a similar role as Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson. Garland was a favorite of directors working on low-budget films because she took her roles seriously and played them with a straight face, no matter how laughable the script might be. She was a physical actress and literally threw herself into the part. In this case, it happened to be the muddy Louisiana swamplands. She gives an excellent performance in The Alligator People, making a smooth transition from the chipper and efficient nurse Marvin to the confused but determined Joyce Webster. You can find some hilarious publicity photos for the film at her link under Accomplices.
Most people know Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolfman and The Son of Dracula; the latter film, by the way, can be found in Dracula: The Legacy Collection. But the performance of his career was his heartrending portrayal of the mentally retarded Lennie in Of Mice and Men directed by Lewis Milestone in 1939. When he started hitting the bottle, he ended up in over a dozen Grade Z horror films, but managed a cultish comeback with films like The Alligator People and the notorious Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told in 1964. He's very good as Manon, who has an insatiable taste for homemade moonshine and an obsession with "them gators" who chomped off one of his hands, rendering him "hooked" on retribution. The most shocking scene in the film is his attempted rape of Joyce after he rescues her from the swamp. When she fights back, he delivers a ham-fisted haymaker across her jaw accompanied by a sound effect that made me wince.
I remember Richard Crane from Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, an early sci-fi television series. He's handsome and personable in the opening scenes, and manages to express grief and self-revulsion in make-up throughout the rest of the film. Douglas Kennedy (Chicago Confidential, Bruce Bennett (Mildred Pierce), Freida Inescourt (A Place in the Sun), and George Macready (The Desert Fox) all provide solid support; and director Roy Del Ruth (The Maltese Falcon, 1931 version) speeds the film along at a fast clip.
The Dolby 2.0 Mono and Dolby Mono tracks deliver crisp dialogue, and both enhance the moody score by Irving Gertz. There are no real extras on the DVD, and a commentary by Beverly Garland—or at least a short interview—would have been most appreciated. There are four trailers included for The Fly (1958), The Fly (1986), The Omen, and Phantom of the Paradise.
My parents allowed me to see any horror movie I wanted, but they kept me on a short leash when it came to "JD" films. At such an impressionable age, they felt I might be seduced into a switchblade-and-leather-jacket lifestyle. "Teensploitation" film producer Herman Cohen best summed up their reservations: "Teenagers who see those tough juvenile delinquent films can go out and buy themselves a bicycle chain. But no one can go out and make a monster." I took that quotation from film historian Thomas Doherty's study Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s. It's a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it anyone interest in the topic of teen movies of that ere or the decade in general.
No, you "can't go out and make a monster," but you can buy one. The Alligator People is out there and up for grabs.
A fright flick? No. A fun flick? Yes, indeed—and definitely a guilty pleasure.
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