Of all of America’s countless urban legends, probably none is better known or more often repeated than the one concerning the alligators in the New York City sewer system. It’s a story that’s inspired songs, books, late night jokes and endless cartoon references, many of which have embellished the idea a bit. In Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V., for instance, a sewer gator subplot added the “albino” angle to the legend (given that they’re living down there without sunlight, see?), which seems to have stuck.
What is too often forgotten, though, is that like most legends, this one grew out of actual events.
From the late ‘20s through the late ‘30s, there was a bit of alligator hysteria around New York State. People (mostly on Long Island) kept stumbling across gators of various sizes in their backyards and in public parks. While this didn’t exactly lead to a widespread panic, there was enough concern that on at least two occasions, squadrons of heavily-armed policemen were sent out on alligator hunts. That in itself is perhaps no big deal except inasmuch as it helps establish the mindset. The real core of the legend occurred in 1935. In the February 10th edition of the New York Times, it was reported that several boys in the Bronx were shoveling snow off the sidewalk and dumping it down an open manhole. They were understandably surprised when a six-foot alligator appeared at the opening and attempted to crawl out of the sewer. The quick-thinking and intrepid boys fashioned a lasso which they then used to snag the presumably nauseous and sickly creature. They dragged it out of the manhole, lashed it to a nearby lamppost, and beat it to death with their shovels. New York was once again safe, and the legend began to evolve.
How, exactly, a six-foot alligator ended up in the sewer is still unknown. There’s always the old “souvenir from Florida flushed down the toilet” story of course, while others claim it fell off a passing ship somehow and swam up a sewer pipe. But it would take an awful lot of alligators falling off an awful lot of ships to explain the eventual size of the presumed population down there, so the “flushed” story worked better as the years went on.
Surprisingly, it took a full 45 years after that little gator gave his life in the Bronx for the sake of a silly legend before Hollywood finally gave the story a big-screen treatment worth its due.
Lewis Teague’s Alligator was not the last of the Jaws knockoffs to come out (there were still two unfortunate actual Jaws sequels still to come), but in a way it was a culmination of sorts that marked the end of the genre, at least in spirit. Like 1978’s Piranha it was intelligent, the dialogue was sharp, it had a sense of humor about itself, and it came complete with an underlying political message. Not surprisingly Alligator was written by the same man who’d written Piranha, John Sayles (who took his money from those two jobs and used it to finance his first directorial effort, the monster-less Return of the Secaucus Seven). According to Sayles, the original script he’d been asked to spruce up was set in Milwaukee and featured a sewer gator that grew to enormous size after sucking down all the beer runoff from the aboveground breweries. Well, funny an idea as that is, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. People in Milwaukee are big, he noted, but not THAT big. And how much trouble is a hung-over alligator gonna cause anyway?) It’d probably be too groggy and queasy to stop a group of street urchins from tying it to a lamppost and beating it to death with their pudgy little fists. So he threw that first script away and started over with a different angle in mind.
The film opens in 1968 in a large, unnamed Midwestern city where, as per tradition, a father flushes his daughter’s pet baby alligator down the toilet. Cut to 12 years later when well-chewed body parts and unnaturally large dogs start washing up at a local sewage treatment plant. David Madison (Robert Forster from The Black Hole and Vigilante), a detective haunted by his past, is assigned to the case, and things very quickly grow complicated. The giant alligator itself is never much in question, at least to Madison (who obviously saw the film’s title), but the aboveground intrigue gets pretty tangled as the gator continues to pick off cops, sewer workers, pet shop owners, and children. Even after Madison draws the connection between the gator and a pharmaceutical company that’s been performing unholy hormone experiments on black market animals before dumping the bodies into the sewer, he has to contend with his boss (Michael Ganzo of Godfather Part II), who in turn is being pressured by the mayor, who in turn is being pressured by the head of the pharmaceutical company (the great Dean Jagger of Bad Day at Black Rock in his last big screen role). While this is happening, a local tabloid reporter digs up some dirt from Madison’s past and starts smearing him in print. Meanwhile the alligator finds his way to the street and begins eating his way up the socioeconomic ladder. To make matters even worse, Madison is also trying to come to terms with male pattern baldness. Along the way we also get great character actors like Sydney Lassick (Cuckoo’s Nest), Sue Lyon (Lolita), and Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate). Silva is especially memorable as the Great White Hunter brought in to kill the gator, hiring some local gang members to be his equipment bearers before heading underground.
Although the film was made and released with no studio backing, both Teague and Sayles came out of the Corman School, and used those lessons to knock Alligator a notch above the usual killer animal fare. The jokes are a little quieter than in most New World pictures, but there are still plenty of them (the first victim is a sewer worker named Edward Norton), the acting is better, things still move along at a neat clip, and the mechanical alligator (when it was working) looks a hell of a lot better than you might expect for a low-budget monster picture. Sayles, never one to shy away from slipping some politics into his films, here takes on everything from the media to the American class system to vivisection, but much more subtly than he did in Piranha, making the alligator almost an avenging angel as well as, y’know, a big alligator. (I’ve also heard the gator interpreted as a symbol of Det. Madison’s inner demons, but I’ll leave that one up to you.)
Sometimes I think maybe I’m just a sucker for a good sewer movie, from The Third Man to C.H.U.D. to Mimic to this, but after he died Alligator was cited as one of NY Times film critic Vincent Canby’s all-time favorites, so there you go. As familiar as the core story is, it was a film intelligent and stylish enough to make any other Jaws knockoffs (including those last two sequels) seem silly and irrelevant, and not in a good way, either.
Interestingly, over the past few years, 30 years after the film and 75 years after that first sewer gator in the Bronx, the number of confirmed alligator sightings around NYC, from Central Park to Queens to Brooklyn, has increased exponentially, which leaves me thinking it may be about time to stop referring to the story as an urban legend.
Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars