Film

Don’t Open That Door! #30: 'The Alligator People' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: scary things get born on the bayou -- and killed there -- in The Alligator People.


The Alligator People

Director: Roy Del Ruth
Cast: Richard Crane, Beverly Garland, Lon Chaney, Jr., George Macready, Frieda Inescort
US release date: 1959-07

Alternative Titles: It Came from Beneath the Swamp; A Pre-Nuptial Agreement Might Have Been a Good Idea in This Case

POSITIVES:

Alligators are creepy and they get a fair bit of screen time.

Focus is on the heroine for a change (though she doesn't do terribly much).

Moody swamp atmospherics with lotsa rain & mud.

Clever framing device actually adds to the story.

Human characters are as dodgy as the monsters.

NEGATIVES:

Nothing much happens for a while.

Horrifying "revelation" isn't too horrible (or revelatory).

Anyone who's seen The Fly will be reminded of that better, creepier film.

Disappointing minimum of mayhem in favor of "human interest" focus.

SYNOPSIS: Something goes terribly wrong for new bride Joyce when, soon after her marriage, her pilot husband Paul skips out on her. Pursuing her wayward spouse with all the tenacity of a famished pit bull, Joyce eventually winds up in the little town of Bayou Landing, Louisiana (main industries: rain, mud and loco locals). But when she knocks on the door of the house that she believes her runaway hubby calls home, she is coldly rebuffed by the ice-queenly matron of the house, one Mrs. "Frigidaires R Us" Hawthorne. At the end of her tether—and with no way out of Bayou Landing till the next day's train—Joyce begs for a night's shelter, which she duly gets, although Mrs Hawthorne demands, with typical Dixie hospitality: "Don't leave the room!" Gosh, that sounds like there's nothing to worry about.


Fortunately for the rest of us, there's plenty to worry about: meandering crocodiles, loco local handyman Mannon (sexually frustrated! With a hook for a hand! Shooting his gun at the gators! No kidding!) and a variety of things going bump in the night. Also there's a weird-voiced guy playing piano downstairs who runs away when Joyce enters the room. (Bad guest alert: she didn't stay upstairs as she was told). Hey, I wonder who that could be. Joyce can't figure it out either, and when Mrs. Hawthorne tells her she must've imagined it—clever lady, that Mrs. H—Joyce is far from convinced.

In the end, it all comes out: the terrible plane crash and the revolutionary treatment by local genius Dr. Mark (you can tell he's a doctor by his white hair and air of gravitas). The treatment, successful at first, had some unfortunate long-term side effects, and we're not talking dizziness and nausea. The good news, though, is that Dr Mark has lined up a new experimental treatment for his old experimental treatment, and even though it involves radioactive cobalt-60, there's no reason to expect anything will go wrong. Unless of course some gun-toting, booze-swilling, sexually frustrated loco local takes it into his head to barge into the lab when the precarious treatment is taking place, and cause all the equipment to burst into explosive flames. And what's the likelihood of that happening?

Um—what was that loud crashing sound?

What gets rent asunder: two and a half crocodiles; one and a half people; one lab full of equipment; one marriage that never really had a chance anyway.

What gets saved: Some prime Louisiana real estate, featuring mosquitos, gators, and plenty o' nice mud. Can't vouch for the schools but, y'know, they're probably fine.

Moral of the story: A background check s always a good idea, no matter how much you love the guy.

Party game: Play "Voices" and say things using a funny voice which should indicate what animal you are turning into—duck, wolf, donkey, giraffe etc. Give prizes for most convincing voice, most unusual, creepiest etc.

This reminds me of… 1980's Alligator, which starred a bunch of people you've never heard of and was co-written by John Sayles (Brother From Another Planet). A superior giant-reptile-in-the-sewers flick, it's actually nothing like this at all, apart from the gator trope.

Somehow their careers survived: Richard Crane (Paul) featured in The Neanderthal Man (1953) and The Devil's Partner (1958) and would go on to 1963's House of the Damned. Beverly Garland (Joyce) enjoyed a long career, appearing in Roger Corman films like Swamp Women (1955), The Gunslinger and It Conquered the World (both 1956), plus weirdo projects like 1976's Roller Boogie (starring Linda Blair of The Exorcist). Lon Chaney, Jr. (Mannon), son of the original Phantom of the Opera (1925), enjoyed a 40-year career that started in 1932 with Bird of Paradise and Last Frontier, continuing into the 1970s with Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Along the way were roles in the original, Raquel Welch-less One Million BC (1940), monster flicks such as The Wolf Man (1941) and The Mummy's Tomb (1942); Bride of the Gorilla (1951), Cyclops (1956), Spider Baby (1964) and many more. George Macready (Dr. Mark) might have peaked starring alongside Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's blistering WWI anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory (1957). Frieda Inescort (Mrs Hawthorne) appeared alongside Bela Lugosi in 1941's Return of the Vampire, as well as highly regarded "A" movies such as A Place in the Sun (1951).


BOTTOM LINE: Atmospheric and moody, it's good for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

NEXT WEEK: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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