by Greg Carlson
One of the great features of the still-standing independent video stores is the meticulous classification of distinct subgenres on the shelves. Managers at Blockbuster Video had no problem with Smokey and the Bandit being placed in either the Action or Comedy section, but a dyed-in-the-wool indie video store clerk would make sure to file it under the “Road Race” section, alongside Cannonball Run, The Gumball Rally, and (to a lesser degree) Death Race 2000.
My favorite movie subgenre is the “Man vs. Beast” film; specifically, the ones that came out in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s to capitalize on the success of Jaws and its sequels, right down to the one-word title (Piranha, Grizzly, Barracuda, Tentacles, among many others.) As with any subgenre riding the wave of a popular franchise, the quality of these films can range from camp classic to Z-grade unwatchable. However, there are a few rip-off genre movies that rise to B-list levels of entertainment, gaining repeat viewings due to the serious performances of the actors and/or the “less is more” aesthetic of the director/screenwriter. These niche films must have had an effect on me – out of the three movie posters I have hanging in my downstairs rec room, two of them are Orca and Alligator.
Noted collector Johnny Ramone once said that the worst movies had the best poster artwork. That’s partly why I gravitated towards the Orca poster. Producer Dino DeLaurentiis is doing his best to sell the movie, adding a two-paragraph tagline that reads like something out of an Ed Wood script, and including the same style of exaggerated and disproportionate illustration that he used for his 1976 King Kong poster.
Orca isn’t just “bad” in a low-budget way, but “bad” as in unsympathetic characters, poor morals and motivations, and numerous scenes that take wrong turns. We’re heading into spoiler-infested waters now, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may want to head back. The tone of the film is established in the dated opening scene, where Richard Harris’ Captain Nolan, supposedly the protagonist, is attempting to capture an orca so he can sell it to an aquarium. It goes downhill from there, both in trying to replicate the tense atmosphere of Jaws, and to establish the killer whale—who witnesses the death of his wife and unborn calf to Captain Nolan’s negligence—as the villain. I’m guessing it probably wasn’t Mr. DeLaurentiis’ intention to make the audience root for the orca. Despite the bad vibes, I still revisit to the film as an example of a big-name producer and well-known actors attempting to jump on a hot trend, not realizing why said trend was so exhilarating and popular in the first place.
My Alligator poster has all the hallmarks of a great B-movie: a hand-drawn illustration of the titular creature, early ‘80s-style typeface, and an ominous tagline. As an added bonus, I can still see the crease marks on the poster from when the distributor folded and mailed it to the theater—true grindhouse credibility. The film’s ace in the hole is one John Sayles, who wrote the screenplay early in his career (along with Piranha). Sayles knows what makes a good monster movie, and has melded equal parts police drama, creature feature, and social commentary to create an entertaining and tense urban horror film with some humorous moments and in-jokes. The most suspenseful scenes occur down in the dimly-lit sewer, where, like in Jaws, the creature is used sparingly in shadows, extreme close-ups, and long shots, creating a sense of impending doom.
You will have to suspend disbelief during the scenes where an actual alligator and miniature sets are used in place of the animatronic gator, but by then, you’re already hooked. Like a restrained Irwin Allen disaster film, Alligator boasts several great character actors (Sydney Lassick, Michael V. Gazzo), and stars of yesteryear (Dean Jagger, Jack Carter, Henry Silva, and Sue “Lolita” Lyon in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as a newscaster). The cast MVP is Robert Forster as police officer David Madison. A big-city combination of Chief Brody and Quint, Forster doesn’t play his character as your typical rogue law official. World-weary, determined, haunted but not traumatized, and self-effacing, Forster sells the audience (and eventually, his superiors) on this mutated creature wreaking havoc on the sewer, and the somewhat-plausible explanation of how he came to be. Assisting Madison is the film’s female Hooper, single herpetologist Marisa Kendall, played by Robin Riker. The guy-gets-the-girl ending can be clichéd, but after blowing up the alligator and saving the city, it was nice to see Madison and Kendall end up together.
Like the best punk band or Saturday Night Live cast, there will always be a generational divide on the best creature film subgenre. Some are partial to the ‘50s “nuclear monster” films, while others swear by Syfy’s assembly-line features. Different strokes for different folks, but I’ll always love the films that were most likely pitched via four words: “Jaws with a [INSERT ANIMAL HERE].”
Greg Carlson is a film fan and memorabilia hunter who frequents Scarecrow Video on a regular basis. His top three films are (in random order): Time Bandits, Repo Man, and Taxi Driver. For more pop-culture musings, follow him on Instagram at gregario72.