The Alligator People (1959)

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Lon Chaney, Jr. is one of my favorite character actors. I always thought he was a capable actor with considerable range. Besides obvious horror roles, he was good in comedy (My Favorite Brunette, 1947) opposite Bob Hope and Peter Lorre; in westerns (as aging lawman Martin Howe in High Noon, 1952); and on television, invariably cast as the heavy. Unfortunately, the bulk of his roles fell into four type casts: (1) the simpleton (Lenny in Of Mice and Men, 1939), (2) the tormented (Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, 1942 and associated sequels), (3) the monster (several films), and (4) the drunken villain (Marty in The Cyclops, 1957 and Manon in The Alligator People, 1959). As the maniacal one-armed Manon, Chaney gives one of his most unbridled performances. How can you go wrong with a line like this:

I’ll kill you alligator man! Just like I’d kill any four-legged gator!

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The Alligator People is one of my favorite monster-suit films of the 50’s. It has several things going for it. The story is told in flash-back, from a hypnosis induced Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland). The movie almost plays like film noir or a Val Lewton movie. Second, the story is unusual, with alligators providing a serum for medical research. I could see the film being updated to the modern biopharmaceutical or evolutionary development age similar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Third, the film is lensed in Cinemascope by cinematographer Karl Struss, who worked with De Mille, Murnau, Griffith and Chaplin. It shows, with the best photography of the movie being around the old plantation house and the Cypress swamp.

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Lon Chaney is something else in this film. Like Ahab, he’s hell-bent on seeking revenge against the creature that took his limb. I love how he calls the alligators “dirty stinkin’ slimy gators” and runs them over or shoots irradically with his revolver. He’s a bad shot too. With his curved hook “prosthetic” he’s a warped Captain Hook, who lost his hand to a crocodile. Chaney elevates this film to b-movie bliss. I could watch him all day long.

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The Alligator People boasts a fine cast. Beverly Garland was good in these films. I also like Richard Crane as Paul Webster “The Alligator Man”.

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Every swamp scientist armed with a directional gamma ray gun needs an amphibious vehicle.

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Director Roy Del Ruth also helmed The Fly (1958), but his resume consists mostly of musicals! Based on viewing this colorful romp in the swamp, you certainly wouldn’t recognize he was the director of Ziegfeld Follies. Check out the sets. Like The Fly, this film has terrific laboratory set design. I love all the glass lab-ware, lights and equipment.

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Check this thing out! Need an Alligator Man? I’ve wondered if the Stan Lee Spiderman villain The Lizard (Dr. Connors) was inspired by this film.

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The Alligator People monster of course is one of the highlights of the film. The makeup was designed and rendered by Dick Smith and Ben Nye. I’m not sure who suited up as the final Alligator Man. I like the design. Look close in various scenes in the swamp and you’ll notice seam tears in the suit, but why quibble? I only wish there would’ve been an elaborate, staged battle with hook-armed Manon (stay away from high-voltage cables Lon!)

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Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! I’ll kill ya alligator man!”

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The Alligator People was available as a gorgeous widescreen 2.35:1DVD with the original mono soundtrack. Track it down and pop it in for the kids or other loved ones for Halloween! Suggest showing it as a double-bill with The Fly or Creature from the Black Lagoon.

One Response to “The Alligator People (1959)”

  1. Always loved this film. I think it’s because in films like this (and The Cyclops and The Indestructible Man and others) we really get to see Chaney Jr. act. Not just play Lawrence Talbot, but actually play other interesting characters. Great film!

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