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.