Agressive Alligators and Killer Crocodiles

Ramon the alligator crashes a wedding party in the tongue-in-cheek ALLIGATOR (1980).Let’s face it: When it comes to movie monsters, the Order of Crocodilia get little respect. Sure, the snapping jaws of alligators and crocodiles (and their lesser known cousins, caimans and gharials) can send a shiver up your spine, but will they give you nightmares after the movie is over? Their prehistoric, scaly appearance suggests a living dinosaur, but they are a bit too slow and lazy to inspire the sort of irrational mortal dread we associate with sharks (which get a bum rap for being man-eaters because something about their sleek, silent appearance registers in our brains as an archetype of Grim Death). Consequently, no killer croc movie has ever captured the public’s imagination a la JAWS; instead, aggressive alligators are more likely to appear in low-budget exploitation films. Fortunately, fans of rampaging reptiles – if they are not too timid to explore the blood-stained depths of the cinematic swamp – may find a few fresh titles floating side by side with the corrupt carrion.
ALLIGATOR (1980). Undoubtedly the highpoint of this small genre, this tongue-in-cheek horror film boasts a fun script by John Sayles that is loaded with inside jokes and clever characterization. The story follows a baby alligator, named Ramon, who is flushed down the toilet and grows to giant size thanks to eating discarded animal experiments filled with growth hormones. Director Lewis Teague keeps the action moving and serves up the bloody violence with gusto. A times we cringe at Ramon’s predations (the film violates one of the cardinal rules of horror cinema, by having the gator eat a young kid); at other times we cheer Ramon on (as when he crashes the wedding party hosted by the owner of the company responsible for the animal experiments). Filmed in the days befor computer-generated imagery, the alligator effects are technically dated, but they remain among the most effective ever seen, including a full-sized mock-up and a live alligator (a juvenile filmed against miniature backdrops to make it look huge). You wont’ see any alligator acrobatics or death rolls, but the texture of of the live-action effects is more than enough compensation, and clever editing hides the clunkiness of the full-scale prop. Special kudos go to this film for answering the question that plagues all rampaging reptile movies: in real life, the cold-blooded creatures spend most of their time lying around, eating only occasionally, so why is Ramon so aggressively attacking and eating everything in sight? Those growth hormones have artificially accelerated his metabolism. Upon learning of the unhealthy side effects of the gator’s chemical cocktail diet, our hero drily remarks, “Maybe it’ll die of cancer.” Eleven years later, ALLIGATOR was “honored” with a sequel, the now-forgotten ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION.
ROGUE (2007). Greg McLean’s follow-up to WOLF CREEK is an obvious attempt to fashion a JAWS-type film with a crocodile instead of a shark. A fairly elaborate production, the film features good characterization and some admirable restraint in terms of gore and special effects. The titular Salt Water Crocodile is only briefly glimpsed until the end. The CGI may not completely fool a sharp eye, but it is very well rendered, and the croc’s behavior is mostly scaled down to believable levels, which makes the horror more convincing. Of course, like all movies of this type, the animal displays the metabolism of a mammal rather than a reptile. The script goes some way toward addressing this issue by stating that the croc is territorial – killing the invaders and storing them for later, rather than eating them all at once.
LAKE PLACID (1999). This is a schizophrenic effort: half horror, half comedy. It works in bits and pieces, but the bits and pieces never mesh together into a satisfying whole. Blame it on a conflict of sensibilities between writer-producer David E. Kelly (known for his witty television shows) and director Steve Miner (known for his gory FRIDAY THE 13 sequels). The alligator is not bad, but the film cannot make up its mind about how to treat it. When it bites off someone’s head, we’re supposed to scream; when we see an eccentric old woman (who has “adopted” the gator) feed it a live-cow, we’re supposed to chortle in amusement at the absurdity. As crazy as it is, this is worth a look-see, for the strange combination of humor and horror. 2007 gave us a made-for-television sequel LAKE PLACID II, which featured no returning talent from the original.
PRIMEVAL (2007). In this pretentious political allegory, a man-eating crocodile is a metaphor for civil war in an African country. Although loosely based on a true story about a crocodile known as Gustav, the concept is hard to take seriously, and you get the feeling that the screenwriters are talking down to their audience, lecturing them with redeeming social consciousness instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty with the alligator action. Gustav himself is fun as long as you give up any hope of actually believing he’s a real animal. The computer-generated effects go for broke, showing the animal runing like a gazelle, leaping from the water like a marlin, and pretty much doing anything else the effects people can think of. In the end, the film is actually entertaining, though not in the way intended: because the scenario takes itself so seriously, the result emerges as unintentional camp, good for a laugh.
EATEN ALIVE (1977). Tobe Hooper’s follow-up to TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE features Neville Brand as a crazy motel proprietor who feeds his guests to the ferocious alligator living next door in the swamp. Most of the focus is on the human psycho, with the alligator in a supporting role, occasionally popping up to munch on a pet dog or kill off one of the supporting cast.  (Freddie Kruger fans take note: Robert Englund makes his debut in this film.) Decades later, Hooper made another croc movie, appropriately titled CROCODILE (2000), which somehow inspired a sequel, appropriately titled CROCODILE 2: DEATH SWAMP (2002).
HATCHET (2006). Talking about psycho killers in a swamp, here’s another one, and there is an alligator in this film, too. The opening scene features a couple of poachers killed off while hunting a big gator, and later an alligator (perhaps the same one) munches on the leg of a tourist after the tour boat runs aground. It could be just a coincidence but EATEN ALIVE’s Robert Englund plays one of the unfortunate poachers; I tend to think that writer-director Adam Green cast him as a deliberately jokey inside reference to the Tobe Hooper film. Also worth noting: the basic set-up of HATCHET is recycled in ROGUE.
ERASER (1996). This action flick features a memorable crocodile cameo. While battling the bad guys in a zoo, Arnold Schwarzenegger shoots the glass of a crocodile pen, releasing the animals so that they can chow down on the villains. Coming a few years after JURASSIC PARK (the big breakthrough for computer-generated reptiles), this film may feature the first example of CGI crocodiles. Typically, these are turbo-charged beasts that bear little resemblance to the real thing – they act as if their handlers haven’t fed them in weeks. Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger shows little gratitude for the assistance they provide, casually shooting one while deliering the lame-ass one-liner, “You’re luggage.”
DINOCROC (2004). This Roger Corman production aims to recreate the feel of an old drive-in exploitation movie, to mostly good effect. The titular monster is the result of some kind of experiment at one of those good-for-nothing evil corporate laboratories that proliferate in this kind of film (and in real life for that matter). Perhaps more dino than croc, the monster is not really convincing, but if you take the leap of faith known as suspension of disbelief, you will have a pretty good time with this. Notable for the unexpected death of a characters whose youth seemed to put him safely in the “Survivor” category.
ONE MILLION B.C. (1940). Producer Hal Roach was too cheap to fork over cash for stop-motion effects, so this prehistoric fantasy features real-life reptiles made-up with fins and horns to resemble dinosaurs – including a baby alligator that fights a lizard. The animal action is, unfortunately, real, and it is the kind of thing the SPCA would never allow today. Recycled as stock footage, this alligator-versus-lizard fight became almost a staple of low-budget sci-fi films, being reused in the awful ROBOT MONSTER among others.
THE LOST WORLD (1961). Decades after ONE MILLION B.C., producer Irwin Allen employed the same cost-saving technique (modern reptiles made-up as prehistoric dinosaurs) to film this color remake of the 1925 silent film based on the Arthur Conan Dolye novel. The SPCA were still not on the ball, and you can clearly see the monitor lizard and the alligator really biting each other during their battle. Also like ONE MILLION B..C., this footage ended up being recycled – in the “Terror on Dinosaur Island” episode of Allen’s TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA.
And so it goes. Family members of the Order of Crocodilia have shown up in THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), KILLER CROCODILE (1989) and KILLER CROCODILE II (1990), and KROCODYLUS (aka BLOOD SURF, 2000). Never one to let an old idea die a painless death, the Sci Fi Channel gave us 2007’s CROC, about a man-eating crocodile menacing a tourist location in Thailand. The most recent efforts to reach U.S. shores are not one but two Australian productions, BLACK WATER (2007) and ROGUE, which arrived on DVD after pretty much bypassing theatres. In the case of ROGUE, that is altogether unfortunate, because the film is good enough to redeem the genre’s reputation if only it had been given half a chance to find an audience. Oh well, like I said at the top, as movie monsters go, alligators and crocodiles get no respect.

Pretending to be a dinosaur, an alligator fights a Komodo Dragon in the 'Terror on Dinosaur Island' episode of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. The footage is recycled from the 1961 feature film THE LOST WORLD.

The One You Might Have Saved

Barbra (Judith O'Dea) in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEADRiffing on an earlier essay at Arbogast on Film, Final Girl offers this opinion on why Barbra in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), is the one horror movie victim she would have saved if she had the chance. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) of course receives undue contempt from contemporary audiences because she is – realistically and quite believably – traumatized by the horrible events around her; instead of morphing into a monster-fighting icon of female empowerment (something that would not really happen until Sigourney Weaver played Ripley in ALIEN eleven years later), Barbra simply sinks into catatonia until she briefly flares up at the end – only to be devoured by her dead brother. Barbra sets the standard as the archetypal character who cannot handle what is happening (she foreshadows Veronica Cartwright in ALIEN and Bill Paxton in ALIENS), and her ultimate fate is less shocking than deeply disturbing – which is to say it packs a deep emotional resonance that provokes viewers to think, “Oh no!” instead of “Ain’t it cool!”
I have never had quite such a memorably profound reaction to the death of an on-screen character as Final Girl records, but many are victims I have seen who did not deserve their fate. Below I offer my list…
A Woman of the Streets in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Arlene Francis (who would later become famous as a panelist on the TV show WHAT’S MY LINE) plays this euphemistically-named character (obviously a prostitute). Practically crucified on a rack, Francis screams – and screams – and SCREAMS while Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle examines her blood, hoping it will help his experiments. The way she is trussed up vaguely suggests some kind of S&M dungeon device, and this may be the distant grand-daddy of Torture Porn. And as if it were not enough to kill the woman, Mirakle insults her as well, adopting a tone of moral outrage because her blood is “polluted” (presumably symbolic of her state as a fallen woman), which means it is not suitable for his work. What is most amazing, however, is that this quaint relic from an earlier era actually still packs a punch, thanks to Francis’s unnerving vocalizations – which provoke an almost instinctive protective reaction in the listener.
Josef in THE BODY SNATCHERS (1945). Lugosi gets payback for Francis in this film, playing a dim-bulb assistant who makes the mistake of thinking he can blackmail the murderous body snatcher played by Boris Karloff. Josef is not much of a character, but it is sad to see Lugosi, briefly the reigning king of horror thanks to DRACULA, killed off by Karloff, the star who dethroned him by playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956). This is the one where meddling scientists operate on the Creature so that he can no longer breath underwater, forcing him to become a permanent land-walker. Some jerk commits a murder and tries to blame it on the innocent beast, who goes on a rampage, killing the real murderer. The Creature then heads to the ocean, lured by the sound of crashing waves, and the film leaves us in no doubt that he will drown to death attempting to return to the water that used to be his home. The humans in this film have much to answer for, and one wishes the Creature didn’t have to pay the price for their mistakes.
Dandelo in THE FLY (1958). Dandelo the cat becomes the unwitting victim of his master, scientist Andre Delambre (Al Hedison) who puts him in a matter transmitter. Dandelo disappears – but never rematerializes. All that is left is an echoing wale on the soundtrack. Poor Dandelo, I wish I could bring you back to our dimension; I have a little cat bed here, some cat toys, and a little catnip….
Miles in THE INNOCENTS (1961). Exorcising a malicious ghost proves to be a fatal experience for this young boy played by Martin Stephens. The tragedy of the downer ending hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. Did his governess (Deborah Kerr) save him from the evil influence, or did she unwittingly give him a heart attack by forcing him to confront the ghost? I don’t know if I could have handled the situation any better, but I would like to try.
The Monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969).This Japanese masterpiece tells the story of  Korean painter who can only paint what he sees. When his Japanese lord asks him to paint a divine vista, the artist insists on painting Hell instead. To aid in his endeavor, he asks his lord to stage a scene with a burning chariot; the lord complies – and puts the artist’s daughter in the chariot! As she burns to death, her pet monkey leaps from a nearby tree, joining her in the living funeral pyre. That’s right: in this film, no one comes to a good end – even the monkey dies! It’s such a gratuitous bit – an extra added sucker punch, just to make you feel even worse as you view the tragedy – that you want to point your fire extinguisher at the screen.
The Private Eye in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971).This Dario Argento thriller features a gay private detective in a supporting role. He brags that he has never solved a case but confidently insists that the odds must therefore now be in his favor. He does identify the murderer but only in time to become a victim himself. His demise by poison is poignant – as he realizes, at the moment of his death, that he was, for once, right. You really wish he had lived to enjoy his success instead of expiring ignominiously in a public restroom.
Dr. Martin in ASYLUM (1972). For me, actor Robert Powell will always be JESUS OF NAZARETH – that and the almost mystical father-figure in Ken Russell’s film version of TOMMY. The death of his well-meaning young psychiatrist at the end of this film is too horrible for words. Dr. Martin’s murder, I have to admit, is a pretty effective sick joke (the murderer strangles him with a stethoscope, then uses it to listen for the heartbeat that is no longer there). But the film had set him up as an idealist who objects – quite rightly – to the situation he finds in the asylum. When he dies, it is as if a small piece of hope dies with him.
Edward Lionheart in THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973). Vincent Price plays a hammy Shakespearean actor who kills the critics that trashed his performances. Although inspired by Price’s role in the DR. PHIBES films (in which the mad doctor triumphed), THEATRE reverts to a standard formula at the end, with Lionheart dying in a fire while the final critic walks away to live happily ever after. The injustice is infuriating: Lionheart should have survived and toasted the arrogant twit. (By the way, this is the only suggestion on my list that I mean literally: the film would be better if the script had been rewritten to make Lionheart triumphant.)
Sergeant Howie in THE WICKER MAN (1973). As he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a Scottish Isle, Howie (Edward Woodward) is set up as a bit of a dullard and an unsympathetic prick to boot. The effect for me is that he comes across as a pathetic patsy – a victim less of the murderous pagans on the island than of the unsympathetic screenwriter (Anthony Shaffer) who created him. Howie, I never really liked you that much, but I can’t stand to see anyone forced to take a fall like that. If there were any C02 left in my fire extinguisher after saving the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, I would use it on the flaming Wicker Man.
Jessica Bradford in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). We do not actually see Jessica (Olivia Hussey) die in this film, but the movie ends with her character drugged unconscious while the idiot police department (having fingered the wrong man) leaves her alone in the house with the real killer. Director Bob Clark later said in an interview with Cinefantastique that Hussey’s character had earned the right to live, and I have to agree. I have a hypodermic of adrenalin here that should wake her from her drugged-out torpor, if only I could reach through the screen…
Carrie in CARRIE (1976). I would have saved Sissy Spacek’s psychic girl long before her death at the end of the movie. When the film builds up to the horrible prank at the prom, it is one of the few moments in a horror film when I found myself dreading what was about to happen – even though I knew it had to happen in order for the horror to break out (which was, after all, what I had paid to see). Unlike most films, in which one eagerly anticipates this kind of thing, so that the film will get to the “good stuff,” I did find myself involuntarily reaching out to the screen, wanting to stop Nancy Allen from pulling that rope and dumping pig’s blood all over poor Carrie White.
Officer Jim Kelly in ALLIGATOR (1980). Robert Forster plays Madison, a cop who lost a partner years ago. When he needs someone to help check the sewers where some bodies have been found, most of his chicken-shit colleagues make up lame excuses, but Kelly (Perry Lang) steps forward – even though he knows about Madison’s past. Kelly’s reward for his courage is to be eaten by the titular alligator, while the cowards back at the precinct live to see another day. If Madison couldn’t save Kelly, I don’t know what I could do. Maybe flip the alligator on his back and rub his tummy till he fell asleep? (They say this works, but it never did with my pet alligator – I’d probably just end up joining Kelly’s dismembered body parts in the monster reptile’s gullet.)
Godzilla in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995). The radioactive reptile has been responsible for more death and destruction than one could possibly tally, but the payback he receives in this one more than settles his karma: a full-blown nuclear meltdown reduces the beast to nothing but a pile of ash blowing in the wind. There is a certain grandeur about this attempt to create a convincingly “final” death for the long-lived monster, but his destruction looks really, really painful. If I could just find a few cadmium rods to slow down the chain reaction before it reached critical levels…
The rat in THE EYE (2002). A distant cousin of the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, this rat serves a similar, though slightly vaguer purpose: it’s not enough for the humans to die, the filmmakers have to hammer home the relentless destruction by offing an innocent animal as well. Whatever the point, the rodent’s desperate but failed attempt to outrun the climactic conflagration by diving down a sewer pipe is a great piece of film-making – a perfect little exclamation point to the human destruction above ground. Poor rat, I wish I could adopt you and create a litte menagerie, including the monkey from PORTRAIT OF HELL and Dandelo the cat from THE FLY (I don’t think my facilities would accommodate Godzilla, however).
[serialposts]