As the ’50s came to a close the creature feature slammed into the wall with all the force of a wet washrag. Studio bosses tended to assume blending a person with some type of animal would equal buckets of money, or at least enough drive-in dollars to justify its existence. I doubt those associated with The Alligator People felt they got a solid return on investment. Filmed to satisfy the bottom half of a double bill with Return of the Fly (1959), The Alligator People touted itself as a monster movie that used the CinemaScope process. Unfortunately The Alligator People is utterly toothless (rimshot!) and barely musters up a whimper, let alone a shriek.
Under a hypnotic trance, a woman named Joyce (Beverly Garland) recounts the story of how her husband disappeared on their wedding night. In searching for him Joyce travels to a rural estate in the swamp where she meets her husband’s mother Lavinia (Frieda Inescort), and a host of characters all determined to get Joyce out of town as quick as possible.
You’re probably asking, “With a title like The Alligator People, did you really expect it to be good?” No, I didn’t. I did expect it to be fun, though. If a movie isn’t trying to be good it can at least aim for being something worth lampooning on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The film is framed around Joyce being hypnotized by a doctor in order to recount her story. Don’t ask me why a doctor she works with would assume this is a good idea, or ethical. The only proper explanation is the film wasn’t long enough for a theatrical release (it’s just 74-minutes) without it. Beverly Garland is a trouper in a film whose plot is just ridiculously stupid. With looks similar to Polly Bergen, Garland acts capably for each situation but the role is far from taxing. She’s Oscar-worthy for her ability to suppress her giggles when the alligator people are actually revealed.
Val Lewton had no problem creating compelling stories around a title, and with director Roy Del Ruth and screenwriter Orville H. Hampton here – neither of which was an amateur with their films – it’s surprisingly at how shockingly schlocky the whole thing is. There’s little depth found in the story. Joyce arrives at the house, and doesn’t seem to find anything odd about the caretaker, Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), and his fascination with the alligators that populate the area. Lavinia says she doesn’t know anything about the man Joyce claims to have married, and instead of leaving to find police the story comes up with a contrivance to keep the two in the same house. And these are just the logical narrative setups I’m criticizing. I haven’t even begun to discuss the issues with the science behind the alligator people’s creation. Oh, who am I kidding? Nothing passing for science can be found here.
Considering how far movie effects had come with the likes of Creature From the Lake Lagoon (1954) and The Fly (1958) – hell, I’m assuming Return of the Fly had better effects – The Alligator People’s budget looks non-existent. As Joyce’s husband settles in his transformation much of the makeup looks like scored clay. He’s a pot waiting to be glazed before going into the kiln. By the time the full “effect” is revealed, it’s like watching a person dance around in a cheap Halloween costume. It’s bad.
The problem is there’s little reason to care whether Joyce and her husband Paul (Richard Crane) end up together. Joyce has a few lines of dialogue discussing their whirlwind courtship, with only one scene that’s meant to show their love but demonstrates little more than fondness. When Paul disappears it doesn’t seem nefarious so much as he realized they barely know each other. The biggest threat, short of the live alligators, uninterested in acting as evidenced by their non-improvised snapping at the cast, is Chaney’s Manon. The character oozes lechery and watching him attempt to assault poor Joyce is more terrifying than any scientific experimentation that takes place. Forget the alligator people, let’s worry about the rapist on-staff!
The Alligator People is certainly worth watching with friends. You can make a night of it and poke fun, but it seems like a futile exercise. This is a film meant to fill a quota and everyone’s disinterest is evident.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.