Once upon a time a man, nay, a genius, had a vision. Alligators are a thing. People are a thing. What if we combined the two? From this big-brain moment came The Alligator People (1959).
My history with The Alligator People goes back to grade school. The library had a series of books on cinematic monsters: King Kong, Godzilla, werewolves, vampires, mummies and mad scientists. Within the covers of the mad scientist entry was a photo of a man with an alligator noggin and a caption describing a little-known movie called The Alligator People.
It would take me a long time to view The Alligator People. Many wonderous things happened before then: acne, peer humiliation, bad decisions borne out of idiocy and being roped into the heady world of Internet movie reviews, which is packed to the jowls with eyeball deterioration and groupies that are only slightly psychotic and fully imaginary.
Yet, finally, the day has come. Let’s walk through The Alligator People!
Ah, the 1950s horror movie aesthetic, it’s a gas, daddy-o! From the kooky all-cap title fonts to the blaring trumpet soundtracks, it hearkens back to a time when men were men, women were women, and kids got caned for being confused.
Say what you will about Godzilla 1998, but it did a nice job updating the 1950s horror orchestration with its opening credits. Irving Gertz did the music on The Alligator People. He also did the music for TV shows like Land of the Giants and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
If one is so inclined to study the opening credits further, they will also see legendary make-up artist Dick Smith worked on the flick. Smith basically invented modern face prosthetics. Smith also made us believe a girl can vomit pea soup with the same vim and vigor a US President can achieve when barfing into the lap of a Japanese Prime Minister.
She Be Crazy
The Alligator People starts out at a sanitarium, a neuropathy office to be precise, which is likely right down the hall from the phrenology office where communists are identified by the size of their lips. Two men discuss a female nurse. The important question is quickly addressed:
Is she pretty?
Modern translation: is she strong, independent, and intelligent?
No man sincerely asks that, of course, other than by rote on the order of human resources. Privately, they already rated her on their own subjective looks scale and then hope they never have to speak to her again. In the average male’s defense, said women do wear makeup, so they ask for it.
The lady in question enters. It’s Beverly Garland (no relation to Judy). Garland started out in the famous noir DOA, which was remade in 1988 as a vehicle for Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. Garland went on to be on a metric ton of TV shows: Lone Ranger, Rawhide, Twilight Zone, Six Million Dollar Man, Magnum P.I. and even Friends. So, she’s all right.
Garland gets ushered to a couch and injected with a drug. Heroin, perhaps?
“Got a nice sharp one for you this time,” the doctor says while prepping the needle. He has the bedside manner of Pinhead. Oops…my mistake. It’s not Heroin. It is sodium pentothal. A tape recorder is activated to record Garland’s fantastic tale; she is hooked up to a lie detector; and we flashback into the movie proper…
Love In An Alligator
Garland and her husband are on a train, enjoying their honeymoon. The husband character is played by Richard Crane, who is best known for portraying Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.
They look longingly at each other and smooch. The mood is so lovely that Garland can’t help but bring up one of the most romantic subjects of all: horrific bodily injury. Before they were married, Crane was mangled and smashed in a plane crash. Now look at him! No marks or scars, and he seems “to get more handsome every day,” which is odd, because he should be, like, you know…dead.
It’s almost like this information might be relevant to the plot. Next, Garland and Crane receive a stack of telegrams from well-wishers congratulating them on their nuptials. What’s up with the word nuptials? It sounds like the private parts of an insect.
During mating season, the Brundle-Fly opens its nuptials for mating.
(Speaking of The Fly, The Alligator People was made to be a double-bill with Return of the Fly.)
While Garland happily reads telegrams, Crane opens a note to a musical stinger. His face grows grave. Whatever was on that telegram causes him to jump the train and abandon his new wife. Perhaps, the telegram was her results from the local STD clinic?
Where The Alligators Sing
The Alligator People uses voice-over to keep the audience informed. Likely, it was Ridley Scott’s main influence on the original cut of Blade Runner. Garland explains that the train was the last time she saw her husband. Since she is resourceful, as well as pretty, she sets out to find her man. It is not done very well, however. She does not strike a single hero pose, punch out multiple henchmen or briefly team up with a lesbian who looks like Margot Robbie instead of George “The Animal” Steele.
Crane has a mysterious past. Garland can find no information on him until she discovers his college fraternity pin. She goes to said college, looks at the records, and finds an address Crane gave when he enrolled. This leads her to a town called Bayou Landing.
Bayou Landing is in the middle of swamp country. After disembarking the train, Garland sits down on a crate of radioactive material and waits for the plot to find her while being sterilized.
It does not take long. Horror icon Lon Chaney pulls up. Chaney was past his peak by 1959, but he still worked like a drayhorse. In 1955 alone, he made five movies. Before Chaney died at the relatively young age of 67, he had roles in 25 more movies post The Alligator People.
Chaney plays a drunken swamp rat with a hook-hand. This character likely inspired Tee Hee from Live And Let Die. Chaney invites Garland to hop in his truck, and they head off to a mysterious plantation. On the way, they see over-enthusiastic men wrestle an under-enthusiastic alligator. Chaney also runs over one of the reptiles while laughing manically.
Boozy Chaney running over gators while laughing manically is pure cinema.
We, The Alligator People
The plantation is owned by Mrs. Hawthorne. Her main character trait is that she has a cane. We can only guess many confused children have been on the receiving end of that cane. Frieda Inescort played the character. After her husband’s suicide, Inescort spent her golden years sitting in a wheelchair outside supermarkets and malls, collecting donations for multiple sclerosis research.
Garland wants to know if Mrs. Hawthorne knew her husband. Mrs. Hawthorne tells Garland to take a hike. Unfortunately, no more trains will arrive until morning, so “take a hike” then becomes “enjoy our hospitality and spend the night in our luxurious guest room.”
This behavior leads me to believe Mrs. Hawthorne is from Minnesota, as she has mastered the art of passive aggression. In Minnesota’s defense, this is what happens to people subjected to six months of winter each year, with the only relief being watching the Vikings find new and interesting ways to fail.
Go kick rocks, Gary Anderson! You’re certainly better at that than kicking field goals!
We Got Trouble
Garland awakes that night to the sound of gunshots. Boozy Chaney is out in the swamp, having a good old time blasting gators with a revolver that doesn’t run out of bullets until the scene ends. Chaney is far beyond the bounds of standard redneck behavior here. He is taking it to Kid Rock levels.
Garland then asks the maid, what is with this weird plantation? The maid can’t decide if her character is minstrel or Injun, so her answer goes something like this:
“I can’t tell you this. This is a trouble house. Mrs. Hawthorn deal with evil one. She got big sorrow. Real deep big trouble.”
Who wrote those lines? Research reveals we can’t be sure. The Alligator People had three writers, which is about 2.5 more than necessary. Orville Hampton, who went on to write for Fantasy Island, got first credit. Ryan O’Neal’s father, Charles, contributed. Finally, Robert M. Fresco did work on the screenplay. In addition, Fresco wrote Tarantula, which was one of Clint Eastwood’s first onscreen appearances.
Hi, I’m Mark
Another character enters the movie: an old-man scientist named…Mark. I’ve never seen a movie where an old-man scientist has a name as prosaic as “Mark.” An old-man scientist should be named something like Hastings, Nolan, Townsend, or even Dr. Cyclops. But…Mark?
Dude sounds like one of those hip, young pastors who wear acid-washed jeans instead of suits. “Don’t call me ‘pastor.’ Call me ‘Mark,’ you know, like a visible trace or expression on something…”
George Macready plays Mark. Most people know him as the guy who narrated Count Yorga, Vampire.
Mark runs a lab with a cool laser that zaps alligators. He also has patients who cause ruckuses and need to be punched out by swarthy orderlies. A number of the patients wear weird white, masked robes. They look a little bit like the androids from The Black Hole in negative. What could these costumes be hiding? Alligator heads, perhaps? We never find out. It is never followed up upon.
Mark and Mrs. Hawthorne wonder what they are going to do about Garland snooping around. There is also mumbo-jumbo talk about radiation. Radiation was basically the 1950s version of climate change. If The Alligator People was made today, people wouldn’t be turning into alligators due to radiation. They’d turn into alligators because rising oceans are causing swampland to encroach upon cities, and humans are changing into alligators to cope. To be fair, Al Gore did predict that, though.
It’s An Alligator, Man!
A mysterious man in a trench coat wanders into the plantation mansion and plays piano. The haunting tune wakes Garland up, and she leaves her room to investigate the source of the music. She discovers the amateur musician is a man with alligator skin! He quickly jumps out the window. Even though Garland doesn’t recognize him, her voiceover ominously intones, “The piano keys were still wet…”
Cut to the alligator dude flagging down a car driven by Mrs. Hawthorne. Alligator dude wants Garland gone. By this point, viewers realize the alligator dude is Garland’s missing husband. No wonder he got off the train during his honeymoon. Looks like he is the one with the STD…
The next morning Mark arrives at the plantation. He drives one of those new-fangled boat-cars, which makes one realize civilization continues to go backwards. I wish I had a boat car. I can see it now…
Mark introduces himself to Garland. Since he is a scientist in a 1950s horror movie, he can’t talk about radiation all the time. He waxes on about a 1950s movie scientist’s second favorite topic: evolution!
Just as modern movies replace radiation with climate change, they are starting to replace evolution with Intelligent Design. Soon Darwin Theory will join Phlogiston Theory. It’s not God-did-it Intelligent Design, though. It is aliens-did-it Intelligent Design. This is not going to make militant atheists happy, but they should be fine once they realize their happiness is a biochemical illusion that is meaningless anyway.
See You Later, Alligator
Garland finally breaks down the walls of Mrs. Hawthorne’s obfuscation. Mrs. Hawthorne admits that she is Crane’s mother, but she is still cagey about the details.
Crane enters the house again and is confronted by Garland. Once again, he flees. Garland chases Crane into the swamp. Inexplicably, the director makes Garland almost trip over an obviously fake gator…and then immediately almost trip over an obviously real gator. I’m not sure what the director’s thought process is there. To go from protecting an actor to putting them in genuine danger of life and limb within a single shot is pretty impressive.
Roy Del Ruth directed The Alligator People. Del Ruth was born in 1893. To put that perspective, Mark Twain still walked the earth. One would think a man who directed drive-in fodder like The Alligator People was an Ed Wood-type, but Del Ruth has recognizable movies on his resume: The Maltese Falcon, Topper Returns, and multiple films starring James Cagney and Doris Day.
Garland is eventually rescued by Chaney, who immediately goes into lothario mode. He plies Garland with booze, tries to convince her to take off her wet clothes, and then skips straight to punching her lights out. At this point, Crane crashes the party. He and Chaney have a brawl. Crane gets the better of Chaney and carries Garland to safety.
“I’ll kill you, alligator man!” Chaney yells into the night.
These Alligator Boots Are Made For Walking
Mrs. Hawthorne and Mark tell Garland the truth. Mark set out to harness the healing power of reptiles to cure gravely injured humans. It was breakthrough research, and Crane, with his horrendous plane crash owwies, was a perfect test subject.
Wait a second…is Spider-Man going to crash this party?
The bad news is that Mark’s patients began to develop side effects. They started to turn into alligators. Mark hopes the process can be reversed with radioactive material — the same radioactive material that was in the crate Garland sat on when she arrived in Bayou Landing.
The experiment should be tested thoroughly, but no time exists. Crane insists Mark try the new radiation therapy immediately. The heck with the proper trials! This scene causes a lot of suspension of disbelief that is difficult to overcome. No reputable scientist would go so Fauci, I mean, far, as to test a hastily prepared treatment on patients before it has been fully vetted.
Garland and Crane get to have their encounter session. Despite Crane’s alligator skin, Garland insists she still loves him. “I’m your wife. It makes no difference.” Ah, but what if the mutation continues, and Crane ends up a foot shorter than her? “Okay, that might be a problem,” Garland admits…
Just kidding, Garland’s love is so pure that even that wouldn’t matter. Granted, there will be years of quiet resentment because she can no longer wear heels, but that is acceptable. It’s a wife’s lot in life to live with a degree of quiet resentment anyway.
Crane gets strapped down in the laser room to be cured. By the way, the laser room has incredibly beautiful wallpaper. While Crane is getting zapped, Chaney bursts in.
“Where’s the alligator man!?”
This creates a wrinkle in the treatment process. The treatment must be precise and not go on for too long. Chaney makes it go on too long. As he breaks into the laser room, he discovers Crane now has a full-on alligator noggin and torso. It’s not a great monster suit. Lots of visible folds. The Creature From The Black Lagoon came out five years earlier, so the ability to do better is there. The makers of The Alligator People abstain, however.
One would think Alligator Crane would then nosh Chaney to death, but nope. Chaney decides to electrocute himself instead by grabbing onto an exposed laser wire.
Don’t Go Alligator Man!
Alligator Crane runs off into the swamp. Garland again follows while the lab blows up behind her. Alligator Crane stops to wrestle an alligator because why not? Then he sinks into quicksand while Garland shrieks in abject misery and horror.
Aaaaand…back to the doctor’s office from the beginning of the film. The two doctors discuss what to do about the situation. Obviously, Garland’s story is true. The lie detector confirms it. Yet, she has blocked it from her memory and now lives a normal life. Should they tell her? Wisely, they follow the How To Live With A Woman Rulebook’s most important directive: never draw attention to a problem that can be ignored. You won’t hear the end of it…
And there you have it — The Alligator People. It is not a classic of the era like Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, etc. It’s strictly drive-in content. Nevertheless, a charm exists to its simplicity…and its sincerity. It is played dead straight. It is strange to watch a film not weighted down by the message. The movie has no lesson beyond the standard warnings of scientific hubris, which were prevalent at the time. The Alligator People also goes to show that heroines were a thing even back when the patriarchy supposedly ruled all with an oppressive fist. Garland is great in the role. She said the part was one of her favorite acting jobs. The hard part of it was keeping a straight face. She did it well, though. Despite the goofiness of the concept, Garland gracefully weaves her way through it.
Hey, this movie gives me a great idea! People are a thing. Snakes are a thing. What if we combined them?!
What do you mean it’s been done?
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