Monday, October 18, 2010

Halloween Countdown Day 18: The Alligator People

I kind of biffed things last week by missing two posts, but a crappy internet connection and some other stuff managed to get in the way. But that doesn't mean I stopped watching horror movies, so let's get back on track!

The 1959 Cinemascope horror movie The Alligator People, directed by Roy Del Ruth, is almost a great horror movie. It's potential stems from a cool film noir premise and an intriguing framing sequence, but it's quality is undermined by some dicey special effects and costumes and a plot that seems to drag despite the film's brief, 74 minute running time.

The framing sequence sets things up: a doctor has a nurse, Jane, who reveals a secret past only when in a narco-hypnotic state. Otherwise, she seems to exhibit no memory of this past trauma in her waking life. The doctor consults another doctor, and they both put Jane under to reveal her story.

"Jane" is actually Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland), an Army nurse, and at the beginning of her story, she has recently married a soldier, Paul Webster (Richard Crane), who had been badly injured in a plane crash but fully, and mysteriously, recovered. While on a train heading toward their honeymoon, Paul gets a telegram that agitates him, and he gets off at the next stop without returning to the train. Joyce then begins a months-long search for her missing husband.

Like I said, this is a nice, film noir set-up for this movie, and it retains this feel for the first half or so. Joyce's search leads her to Louisiana swamp country and a small town called Bayou Landing. While at the town's apparently abandoned train station, she meets Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who turns out to be the handyman at the plantation where her search has led, and he offers to give her a ride.

Manon is the type of character Lon Chaney, Jr. played in dozens of movies like this, and he's just the right mix of bizarre, creepy, and dangerous. He has a hook for a hand, which he lost to an alligator, and, Captain Hook-style, he is obsessed with gators because of it. He spends his evenings getting drunk on his own moonshine and then walking out into the swamp to shoot gators. "I'm gonna spend the rest of my life killing gators," he shouts. He also tries to roadkill one while driving Joyce to the plantation.

At the plantation house, Joyce meets Mrs. Hawthorne, who denies knowing anyone named Paul Webster. While the lady of the house does not want this intruding visitor, out of politeness she asks her to stay the night, anyway, as there are no more trains out of town until the next day.

Joyce gets nosy, and she eventually finds out the fate of her husband, who has begun transforming into an alligator man due to an experiment with alligator pituitary extract that saved his life after the plane crash. The experiment was performed by Dr. Sinclair (George Macready), whose research is funded by Paul's mother, Mrs. Hawthorne. Also, Dr. Sinclair drives around in a duck boat, which is awesome. The movie then spends way too much time trying to explain its phony science, and not enough time with alligator wrestling and duck boats.

There is a nugget of a cool story here, with a woman investigating the disappearance of her husband and then finding a completely fucked up family conducting bizarre experiments in the swamps. But it never quite reaches that potential. One big obstacle is Paul's ridiculous alligator make-up and costume. I normally give such movies a lot of leeway when it comes to cheap effects and costumes, but here it's pretty distracting. The filmmakers would have done better to keep Paul's appearance hidden so that the viewer could imagine the transformation.

At the end, the framing sequence closes with a nicely disturbing and insidious moment where the doctors discuss whether or not to tell Jane about her secret life, while the nurse goes about her work, happily oblivious to her past.


Allen Mauldin said...

This film sounds like it should be credited for the rise of Doctor Conners/The Lizard in Spiderman. By the way, is it "Spiderman" or "Spider-Man". I've seen both and have always been terribly confused.

Dr. K said...