Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Alligator People (1959)

Roy Del Ruth's The Alligator People is an interesting picture.  What we got here is a monster movie almost completely devoid of actual monsters.  By that I mean, there are no creatures out to get us.  Only encroaching nature and a drunken one handed lunatic.  I don't mean that as a negative.  This picture is actually pretty impressive.  It's the story of what happens when you inject reptile hormones into mutilated accident victims and also the unfortunate bastards that are cursed with loving them.  

Also, this controversial treatment involves being zapped with gamma rays.

Anyway, we got that all-to-common framing device where a couple of doctors inject their nurse with sodium pentathol (truth serum) and the nurse recalls a series of astounding events.  In her hypnotic state, she flashbacks to a time when she went by a different name (Joyce Webster) and she's a newlywed on a train travelling to an unidentified location.  She's just been married to a guy named Paul Webster.  He seems like a good guy.  No skeletons in his closet would be a good assumption.  Assumption blown as soon as a train attendant delivers them some mail including one letter that causes Paul to quickly get off the train at the next possible stop and, presumably, disappear from Joyce's life forever.  Joyce spends the next few years tracking him down.  Her investigation leads her to the Louisiana bayou.  Paul once listed some plantation (The Cypresses) down there as his address.  At the train station in the bayou, she manages to hitch a ride with a hook handed Lon Chaney Jr (playing a character named Manon), the Cypresses drunken caretaker.  

Chaney Jr is brilliant in the role, a sort of cajun Captain Hook.  The drive to the plantation reveals him to be a man full of grudges.  And all those grudges are held against alligators.  He badmouths the things the entire ride.  Joyce finds herself in the somewhat awkward spot of having to defend them.  Manon points out she wouldn't survive ten minutes in the swamp.  She relents.  He then spots a gator up the road and guns his truck towards it, running it over in one of the pictures more visceral, and convincing, scenes.  He's Ahab of the bayou.  Gator took his hand.  He wants it back.  Also, no gators were harmed during the making of this picture.  They used real gators and those wrasslers were professionals.  And that gun Manon fired wildly at them was full of blanks.  Also, he was drunk and kept missing.  

On the plantation lives a strange off putting woman named Lavinia and her slaves...er staff.  Lavinia takes an immediate dislike to Joyce.  Wants her to leave.  Train won't come until morning.   She'll stay until then under the condition that she doesn't leave her room which is pretty much an open invitation to leave the room and go snooping.  Lavinia is hiding something.  When Joyce asked her about Paul, Lavinia proved herself a bad liar.  Eventually, we and Joyce learn the truth.  We get there first.

Turns out there's a clinic down in the bayou easily accessible by river boat.  The clinic is run by Doctor Mark Sinclair.  We see patients, with strange masks concealing their faces, manhandled by beefy orderlies.  Later, one of the patients sneaks onto the plantation and into the house so he can play a few keys on the piano.  We see his scaly face in shadow.  Joyce follows the music in an homage to Frankenstein (or maybe Mel Brook's homaged this scene in Young Frankenstein.  Who can remember?).  The shadowy stranger turns out to be (spoiler) her husband.  An accident victim from years back.  Apparently, the procedure was a success.  At first.  Then the doctor telegraphed Paul (somehow knowing exactly where he was and on what train, etc) to let him know that, not only were the results temporary, Paul would eventually turn into some kind of weird reptile man-thing...alligator people.  Understandably, Paul took off before Joyce was subjected to some kind of bizarre reptile-man coitus.  He was protecting her, still loves her, wants to get it on with her, but doesn't she find him hideous? 

What's truly unusual about this picture is just how tragic it all is.  Sure, plenty of monster movies attempt to emphasize the tragic elements of their creatures, but in the end it's just a misunderstood creature stomping all over civilization.  We can almost buy the science here.  Reptiles are known for regenerating limbs so why not isolate what causes this regrowth and apply that shit to humans?  Ok, so it's 3rd grade science.  Still, works for me.   What's really tragic is the real monster in this picture is Manon whose hatred of alligators extends even to alligator people.  Why is this tragic?  Once again, a drunk is the villain.  

Things are not going to end rosey.  How could they, in a swamp?  Turns out Lavinia is Paul's mother.  She wants to embrace Joyce but tries to turn her away to protect Paul.  Circumstances are keeping these people apart and will likely end up destroying their lives.  Joyce will probably be left so traumatized that she'll block everything from her memory, change her name, and become a nurse or some shit.  The fact that she did this leads us to believe that Paul stayed in the bayou and that everyone else was probably killed in a radioactive explosion or something (only a spoiler if true).

I don't know man, I really dug the picture.  The atmosphere was thick, the music strung us along, and the makeup more than did the job.  At 74 minutes this thing flew right by.  I liked how it wasn't routine.  The "mad scientist" wasn't mad at all.  He was just an aging doctor who has dedicated his life to helping people.  The character is full of traits that make him human; empathy, love, humor, kindness, stupidity, god complexes, etc.  We also got the interesting flashback framing device, the monsters that want to be human, the human that wants his hand back and is figuratively a monster, and also the hero who, in a last ditch effort to make himself normal, gets zapped with gamma rays that may or may not leave him with a ridiculous looking gator mask for a face.  The alligator people are more human than most humans and especially that drunken biggot Manon who tries to kill Paul after attempting to have his way, sexually, with his wife, which is a pretty monster-ish course of action, even by bayou standards.  So, if you ever want to see a movie like Swamp Thing crossed with Frankenstein and maybe a dash of Moby Dick, then look no further. 

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