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Alligator (1980) Review: Campy Creature Feature From the Sewers

As a child of the 80s weaned on a healthy diet of Fangoria magazines and late-night cable creature features, Alligator hit all the right nostalgic notes for this horror devotee. This 1980 B-movie gem takes one of the most indelible urban legends – pet alligators flushed down toilets growing to monstrous sizes in the sewers – and runs with it to delightfully campy effect.

From its tongue-in-cheek opening showing a kid conning her parents into an ill-advised baby alligator purchase, you know you’re in for a ride that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Once the titular reptile starts picking off the residents of a big city after mutating to massive proportions thanks to a diet of lab animal remains, Alligator revels in its glorious cheesiness. Cliched character archetypes from the gruff cop to the mayor’s crony hunter check all the familiar boxes, but it’s hard to care when the real star is the gigantic, people-chomping alligator itself.

While the creature effects were relatively low-rent even by 1980 standards, there’s something charmingly tactile about the old-school monster magic on display. Director Lewis Teague has fun obscuring the full alligator, instead giving us tantalizing glimpses of its scaly hide, menacing eyes and bone-crunching jaws emerging from the shadows and sewer grates. For fans of vintage creature features done with a wink, Alligator is a loving ode to an era when you didn’t need cutting-edge CGI to bring these B-movie monsters to life. Sometimes the simplest premises, executed with campy verve, provide the most enduring thrills and chills.

How does it hold up in 2024?

While the script by John Sayles and Frank Ray Perilli sticks closely to the well-trodden creature feature formula, there’s a self-aware sense of fun that keeps Alligator from feeling stale. The filmmakers seem to revel in the very B-movie cliches they’re employing, like the grizzled cop who can’t get anyone to believe his wild alligator tale or the big game hunter whose overconfidence leads to a delightfully grisly demise.

Of course, no campy 80s monster movie would be complete without a healthy dose of gratuitous nudity and gore. Alligator delivers the goods with plenty of cheeky T&A moments and delightfully over-the-top kill sequences made all the more entertaining by the charmingly dated special effects work. In an era before CGI became the norm, these kinds of creature features lived or died by their ingenuity in bringing the monsters to life on a shoestring budget. While the alligator effects may look a bit hokey now, they still inspire a sense of handcrafted charm missing from today’s overly-digitized spectacle.

Carrying the film through the admittedly thin plot is a game cast clearly having a blast. Robert Forster is perfect as the put-upon cop stuck dealing with the escalating alligator attacks, bringing the right mix of world-weariness and heroic determination. As his love interest/scientist ally, Robin Riker is equally appealing, never descending into the shrieking final girl histrionics. And you’ve got to love Henry Silva chewing the scenery as the overly macho big game hunter whose hubris seals his delightfully gnarly fate.

For those seeking a smart, substantive creature feature, Alligator may prove a bit too thin in the plot department. But for fans of 80s horror who appreciate unpretentious B-movies executed with a heaping helping of self-aware camp and practical creature effects magic, this Jaws-in-the-sewers romp is an absolute blast from start to finish. Few films from the era captured the anarchic spirit and bloody-minded fun of 80s horror quite like this unassuming little alligator gem. Decades later, it remains a timeless treat for monster kids of all ages.

While the plot is straightforward and doesn’t reinvent the wheel, Alligator has an undeniable scrappiness that makes it a quintessential example of 80s horror charm. The movie zips along at a brisk pace, never getting too bogged down in exposition as it moves from one gloriously gory set piece to the next. From the alligator’s first jaw-dropping appearance bursting through a city sidewalk to the climactic wedding massacre, director Lewis Teague keeps things humming with a lovable B-movie economy.

Part of the fun is just how unabashedly Alligator embraces its lurid, schlocky premise. There’s no attempt to ground the material in gritty realism or add unnecessary layers of sophistication. It’s a movie about a giant alligator running rampant through the city sewers, and it wears that unpretentious simplicity proudly on its scaly sleeve. You can sense the palpable glee the filmmakers took in dreaming up increasingly outrageous alligator attack scenarios to thrill the drive-in crowds.

While the visual effects were definitely ropey even by 1980 standards, that very cheapness has allowed Alligator to age into a veritable practical effects time capsule. In today’s CGI-saturated environment, there’s something refreshingly tactile about the old-school monster magic conjured through puppetry, animatronics, and good old-fashioned camera trickery. You can practically see the seams on the alligator effects, but that’s precisely what makes them so endearing to horror buffs who grew up in the pre-digital era.

Of course, the effects would mean little without a palpable sense of fun surrounding them. Thankfully, Alligator has that madcap spirit in spades, reveling in its own ridiculousness at every turn. From the winking opening credits sequence to the tongue-firmly-in-cheek performances by the likes of Robert Forster and Henry Silva, everyone involved seems to be having an absolute blast bringing this comic book creature feature to life. It’s a vibe that’s utterly infectious for viewers willing to embrace the film’s unabashed B-movie ethos.

An Irresistible Ode to 80s Horror Charm

While Alligator wears its inspirations like Jaws and other creature features proudly on its scaly sleeve, it also has a wildly entertaining anarchic spirit all its own. There’s a go-for-broke recklessness to some of the more outrageous set pieces, like the alligator crashing a high society wedding reception in a burst of bloody mayhem. You get the sense the filmmakers were cackling with glee as they dreamed up these deliriously over-the-top money shots designed to delight the drive-in crowds.

It also helps that Alligator has a self-aware sense of humor about its own B-movie tropes and cliches. The screenplay has fun gently mocking the usual horror character archetypes – the gruff cop who plays by his own rules, the shady mayor more worried about optics than public safety, the blustering hunter who meets a grisly demise. But it does so with a winking affection rather than outright parody. You can tell everyone involved had a genuine love for these disreputable flicks.

Alligator’s scrappy, unpretentious charms are what have allowed it to endure as a beloved cult classic, especially among horror fans who came of age in the 1980s. It represents a simpler time when you didn’t need cutting-edge CGI or a nine-figure budget to bring a big, scaly monster to life on the big screen. All you needed was a deliciously high-concept premise, a cast willing to embrace the silliness, and a spirit of inventive, handcrafted showmanship. You can check it out right now on Tubi for free.

For younger viewers raised on an endless buffet of slick but soulless CGI spectacle, Alligator may seem charmingly archaic. But for horror buffs raised on the glorious handmade creature features of the VHS era, it remains a pure distillation of what made 80s horror cinema so unique and wonderful. Alligator is an irresistible ode to the unpretentious, deliriously fun monster mashes that defined the decade. Decades later, this scaly cult gem hasn’t lost any of its bite.

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