9.10.13

Dirty, Stinkin, Slimy Gators!: The Alligator People (1959)

It is quite the challenge to make an engaging film without throwing away any concern whatsoever for giving the narrative any semblance of moral seriousness or weight.  Indeed, this has always proved particularly problematic when considering genre films who in their traditional sense negate any possibility of high brow criticism.  This is not to say that on various occasions the narrative elements of a genre film cannot transcend their low-culture status and become profound considerations of societal issues.  It is merely a matter of understanding that there is a very delicate line between being subtly condemning and belligerently on the nose.  For example, much of George A. Romero's early output focuses on these issues by merely making them a fact from the opening of the film, casting black men and women in lead roles, thus subverting the tradition and making a classic work in zombie horror in the process. However, most of the output is not this masterful, instead the attempts at commentaries on racial issues or class access become lost in a hopes that a crazy looking creature or beast will lull viewers into the nature of the spectacle.  Tragically this is very much the case for The Alligator People, a work whose special affects, albeit glaringly low-budget still manage to create a sense of dread and creepy ambience, aided almost entirely by its bayou setting, one whose shadows and general mugginess do extend beyond the screen.  Yet, given the storied and very troubled history of slavery and racism in these spaces the film finds no shame in exploiting these narratives to their fullest, without ever suggesting a means to undermine oppression or challenge the very issue with which it metaphorically situates its film.  Lon Chaney Jr., the other man of many faces, does his best to add a new layer to the film, occupying his bizarre mutant creature in a way to bring humanity to an otherwise monstrous figure, yet by the end of the film his association with the animalistic is so ingrained in viewers frame of reference that attempts to humanize him, or relate to the "hysterical" woman's narrative that situate the film become almost impossible.


Joyce Webster, and or Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland) is a woman who manages to hold down a rather respectable job as a nurse for her boss and doctor Erik Lorimer (Bruce Bennett), but as he shows another colleague, when given a particular sleep including drug, Joyce/Jane recalls events she experienced while traveling with her fiance Paul (Richard Crane).  During their travels Paul leaves their cart to answer a telegram, at which point Joyce/Jane loses track of him, only to discover that he has inexplicably gone missing.  Stepping of the train to iscover a crate of radioactive cobalt, Joyce/Jane meets Mannon (Lon Chaney Jr.) a servant for the Cypress family and seemingly likable individual.  At this point, given her confusion, Joyce/Jane tags along with Mannon to the nearest house in hopes of finding her fiance, only to discover that the maniacal Mannon enjoys trying to kill alligators, attempting to run one over on the way home and later drunkenly tries to shoot a handful.  During the night, Joyce/Jane hears the rings of a piano, only to discover a misshapen Paul playing the piano, his skin reflective of that of an alligators, scaly and dry.  As things unfold, Joyce/Jane learns of Paul's troubles with radioactive chemicals and the manner in which they have caused him to become a hybrid of a alligator and a human, constantly shifting between both, but never finding a point of complete stasis.  Through the help of his family and a set of local doctors, Paul hopes to reverse the process of his mutation in one last blast of cobalt radiation.  However, it is during the final test that the mutation takes its most drastic turn, causing the already disfigured Paul to become almost entirely alligator, taking on the entire head and tail of the reptile, while still possessing the limbs of a human.  In his fit of rage and confusion, Paul wanders into a lake and begins wrestling with an alligator, losing out and sinking with the creature to the bottom of the thick bayou.  At this point, the narrative returns to Joyce/Jane's contemporary state, wherein awake she has completely forgotten about her dire experiences, only now curious as to why the doctors have begun treating her slightly different.  The two, hoping to allow her some semblance of normalcy, simply chose not to acknowledge her story again and move on with their drug testing accordingly.


The trick of making a social critique within a genre film is the awareness that there is a very thin line between subtly and overdoing it, which is not necessarily as restrictive within the more traditional film genres, particularly something like the social drama or the melodrama.  Given the context of absurdity and impossibility that exists within the genre of horror specifically, things are in a constant state of juxtaposition between self and other that makes all other dichotomies become extremely apparent.  Take for example the traditional teen slasher film, wherein it is a group of teenagers taking on some weapon wielding psychopath, in these scenarios it is a group versus a singular figure mentality that affords a considerable continuation of the traditional heteronormative divide between male/female and any attempts at blurring this prove damn near impossible.  Of course, there are exceptions to this notion, when the thing of horror is contagious or decidedly insurmountable, either zombies, swarms of say, shark wielding tornadoes, or even the mega monsters of kaiju films.  The Alligator People is deceptive in its name, one that suggests a large group of mutated humanoids, wherein the narrative is more so concerned with one man and his navigation between the space of human and alligator.  As such, the back drop of racial dichotomies within the film become glaringly and troublingly apparent wherein the oppression of the servants goes unchecked and unchallenged, more so serving as figures of cautionary speech to Joyce/Jane than an actual group moving towards some degree of transcendence.  Indeed, where the film to be about the raiding of the Cypress estate by a large scape Alligator People attack then maybe these racial divides would be undermined or altogether destroyed in the realization that genetically speaking there is a distinct divide between man and not man, one which is not at all predicated upon the color of one's skin.  Of course, the film was made in 1959 so progressive racial commentary is far from the expected norm, but one often wonders why, in a genre expressly influenced by the ability to bend the rules, such an egregiously offensive use of race was allowed.  Metaphor be damned, The Alligator People simply fails to engage with social critiques in any transgressive or revolutionary manner.

Key Scene:  Alligator man versus alligator is kind of cool I guess.

There are other movies worth bothering with and this one can easily be passed over at no cost to your cinematic evolution.

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