The Aligator People (1958) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

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Director: Roy Del Ruth
Starring: Beverly Garland, Bruce Bennett, Lon Chaney Jr, Frieda Inescort, Douglas Kennedy, George Macready, Richard Crane

Developed for Fox as a co-feature for The Return of the Fly, in many ways The Alligator People is a superior and more enjoyable film. There’s a similar theme of families being destroyed by science gone wrong in them both, but where the sequel to the Vincent Price classic feels very contemporary with its noirish espionage plot, Roy Del Ruth ‘s film is a much more traditional horror at its heart.

Dark and mysterious bayous, a house with a secret, a tragic monster and Lon Chaney Jr. What more do you need?

Jane Marvin (Garland) is a nurse who agrees to be administered sodium pentothal by her psychiatrist bosses Erik Lorimer (Bennett) and Wayne McGregor (Kennedy) as part of an experiment. Unknown to her, she has somehow forgotten a large part of her life, one in which she was married and going by the name of Joyce Webster.

Under the influence of the drug, she recounts her honeymoon, when not long after boarding a train, her husband Paul (Crane) received a telegram that caused him to immediately disembark, leaving her alone as the carriage pulled away. Months later, still not having seen or even heard from her new husband, her investigations take her to the alligator-infested Louisiana bayous.

Forcing herself into her husband’s family home, Joyce discovers not only the truth about her husband, but that there are much more dangerous creatures lurking in the swamps than alligators…

Southern gothic and very contemporary mad science aren’t the most obvious of bedfellows, but The Alligator People combines both concepts magnificently.

In part that’s due to the excellent job of world-building that Del Ruth’s film does, slowly peeling the curtain back on the dark secrets of Cypresses House. We know early doors that something is deeply wrong with Paul, with his sudden departure from the love his life without a word feeling shocking, even though we have just met them ourselves. Garland and Crane have a real and tangible chemistry together, so we’re sold on their relationship immediately, which is crucial going forward if we are to follow Joyce’s crusade to discover what happened to her husband.

It’s a hostile and alien environment that we follow her into too, one that takes its time to reveal its horrors, but also one that feels oppressive and dangerous even before that. Hell, Joyce hasn’t even met anyone in the bayou before she takes the weight off her tired feet by sitting on a crate of radioactive cobalt. This is not a place for the unwary.

On the surface though, it’s fairly normal. The Cypresses’ mistress Lavinia Hawthorne (Inescort) is stern and unwelcoming, but not disturbingly so, though Lon Chaney’s alcoholic handyman Manon has “danger” written all over him. He’s off with Joyce from the get go, while driving over alligators (he hates the animals as one took his hand leaving him with a hook) on the way to the plantation house gives an early clue to his madness and spite. Chaney is on top form here, that loveable schlub persona he played so well getting a nasty, mean-spirited and predatory makeover to create one of his most frightening characters.

As off-putting as he is, he’s still normal. To an extent anyway. As normal as alcoholic, hook-handed, would-be-rapists can be anyway. Ah, yes. The attempted rape scene. For 1959, this is pretty strong stuff. You don’t see anything and he fortunately doesn’t get far, but the way it’s set up, you can tell where he’s going with it all and it’s brutally effective. Regardless of the sci-fi horror that will later unfurl, it’s this little slice of a very real-world horror that is the most unsettling scene by some margin.

There’s plenty of more overt scares in there too though such as Joyce’s nail-biting escape from Manon through the ‘gator-infested swamp. Vividly shot, with real reptiles snapping their jaws only feet away, there’s a real feeling of peril and desperation, bolstered by what feels like a living, breathing environment. It’s punishingly warm, damp, generally unpleasant and populated with alligators, though it still feels like a better option than Manon’s cabin.

Of course the truly worst thing is what has happened to Paul and as we discover, more like him. George Macready’s self-proclaimed “Swamp Doctor” Mark Sinclair is a very modern take on the mad scientist. He’s perfectly sane for one thing, well as much as anyone experimenting with reptilian hormones to regenerate limbs can be anyway. His clinic feels normal, clean and bright, like any other medical centre. But like all mad scientists, hubris that has been his undoing and will also be his downfall.

It’s Manon that is the catalyst obviously, but it feels like everyone’s fate was already sealed long before. Paul’s transformation into a reptile man doomed him and he knew it. It’s well-realised too, as he is hideous in the transitionary stage, all scales and primal rage, (the less said about the rigid alligator design that he evolves into the better), but crucially, his humanity is still apparent.

Much like his mother who hides her own humanity behind the mask of coldness, Paul’s is what drives him to marry Joyce, but it’s also what drives him to leave her when he learns of his fate as well as to protect her at all costs, regardless of his own needs or desires. Sure, he’s turning into an alligator, but he’s a man first and foremost.

The Alligator People is a rip-roaring dose of sci-fi horror that hits all the right notes, but is a film about love, between a husband and wife and a mother and son. It’s that rare animal, in that it’s got heart firmly entrenched in amongst its horror. At once retro-feeling and very of it’s time, it’s a minor classic and proves that, after decades of mad science cinema, there was still life left in the old laboratory…

Rating: 4/5.


The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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