Alligator (1980)

“So bad it’s good.” The minor movie Alligator carves out meeting point between excellence and incompetence, between cliché and surprise, between humor and terror, and, above all, between seriousness and satire.

“Bad” movies are usually boring. In Mystery Science Theater 3000, the sarcastic observers might say coaxingly during a dull moment of exposition, “Here, movie, movie, c’mon, here, movie.”

In Alligator the action is relentless, hurtling along at a pace comparable to the latest installment of the Fast and Furious franchise. Along the way, the corner of every oh-so-predictable plot point is turned smoothly. Each detail is ridiculous — this is a movie called Alligator, after all — but the tension holds because everyone plays it straight.

I stumbled across this gem reading the obits of Robert Forster. Forster offers a perfect assemblage of every “lone cop on mission” trope imaginable: driven, haunted, tough, persecuted, heroic, sexy, smart, strong, vulnerable. (However, a recurring joke about Forster’s male-pattern baldness could only be from this movie.)  The side characters are also worthy clichés, especially the pompous big game hunter and the motor mouth mother. It’s all one big cliché, yet somehow it is also fresh, partly because director Lewis Teague choses to make his topic “the movies” as much as “the story,” standing heroically somewhere between David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino — although Teague has, of course, a tiny budget and a plot that can be summed up in block print on the back of matchbook. One might have expected Teague to apportion most of that small budget for the lurking menace in the sewer, but he opted instead for several vivid sequences of automobile destruction, another odd choice (like the male pattern-baldness) that works surprisingly well.

The script is by John Sayles, and this may be where the magic really lives. I can just see Sayles at his writing desk, screaming with laughter while half-conceiving, half-remembering one overly-familiar line of dialogue after another. Yet Sayles also somehow delivers something in the larger frame, with subtly shocking examples of animal exploitation by a pharmaceutical company and an amazing sequence where buskers are selling every kind of toy alligator to spectators gawking at violent aftermath. When the monster turns on its creator in the final act, it is very satisfying.   “So bad it’s good.”  Yeah. One of kind! I’m so glad to have finally caught up with Alligator.

Music trivia: The score of Alligator is by Craig Hundley (later Craig Huxley). The Craig Hundley Trio was a minor sensation in 1968 thanks to the young age of the musicians pictured on the cover (Hundley was 14). I’ve seen this LP many times over the years in used record stores and had assumed that the musical content of the tween Hundley was not standing the test of time, but the internet informs me that legendary producer J Dilla used at least two samples from the Hundley Trio in his work.