“Alligators,” said that noted gator expert, Eve Arden, in Mildred Pierce, “have the right idea. They eat their young.” Our bringing up Miss Arden’s trenchant comment is stimulated by our current post, on the 1959 20th-Century Fox horror film The Alligator People, part of the 50s Monster Mash Blogathon hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear (for more information and a complete list of participating bloggers, please click here). No doubt, as Miss Arden indicates, alligators would make lousy baby-sitters. And they probably would not be your first choice for a companion to snuggle up to on cold winter nights. Which brings us to the following observation: Alligators are not cuddly. They are a distinctly un-huggable breed. (“The alligator,” Wikipedia informs us, “is notorious for its bone-crushing bites”—need we say more?) On a scale of cuddliness, which might list puppies, kittens, Cabbage Patch dolls, and Shirley Temple on the high end, alligators would be right there at the bottom, along with rats, spiders, roaches, and Godzilla. To paraphrase the late Charles M. Schultz: Happiness is not a warm alligator.
So if you’re in the market for changing your species, you might want to consider something other than an alligator. Yet this is what happens in The Alligator People—the ‘people’ of the title are turning into alligators. Sometimes walking on the wild side does take on a literal form; or maybe that call of the wild is summoning up a deeply repressed Darwinian ancestor. This idea may not be as farfetched as it seems. One theory of mental evolution, the Triune Brain hypothesis, proposes that the core of the human brain, or R-complex, is—wait for it—the “reptilian brain,” the repository of all our most primitive, aggressive instincts. The rest of the cerebellum is merely an evolutionary afterthought. At heart, you see, we really might all be alligators.
Images of reptilian forebears bursting through our civilized veneer, is of course, something that’s too good not to be in the movies, although Hollywood was never an industry to restrict itself to one species only. TAP is one in a long line of monster movies in which human beings are transformed, usually by weird science or even weirder supernatural means, into animals. By the 1950s Hollywood had evolved a small genre of human-into-creature horror. The animal of preference was most often the wolf (films include The Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man, Wolfen, Wolf, The Mad Monster, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, An American Werewolf in London); but people have also turned into panthers (Cat People), fish (The Incredible Mr. Limpet), dogs (The Shaggy Dog), gorillas (The Ape Man), and even insects (The Fly). There are also the beast-into-human hybrids in the various adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (the most famous, and best, being the 1932 Island of Lost Souls). And Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces turns into a horse; but that one may not count, as Ollie had, at film’s end, shuffled off his mortal coil, and his equine form was a result of reincarnation and not by the usual film-changing methods of animal bites, curses, serums, psychological disturbances, or just plain bad luck.
Into the (very) weird science category definitely falls TAP. Like many 1950s monster movies (e.g., Tarantula, The Fly, The Amazing Colossal Man), TAP mixes some wild and woolly science into its horrors. The story focuses on Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland), whose search for her missing husband Paul (Richard Crane) takes her to the Louisiana bayou swamp country, where she discovers that her husband is part of a bizarre medical experiment. A former military flyer, Paul had been horribly injured in a plane crash, but had recovered to the point where he shows no trace of his earlier injuries—“You haven’t got a mark, you haven’t got a scar…nobody would believe you were even in a plane crash!” Joyce exclaims on their wedding night. But a mysterious telegram draws Paul away from his bride, and it’s not until their later swamp-side meeting that Joyce finds out how bizarre it all is. Paul’s miraculous cure was due to a radical medical procedure, consisting of injections of hydrocortisone, a healing hormone secreted by reptiles, which the harried medical researcher, Dr. Sinclair (George Macready), has taken from swampland inhabitants—that’s right, from the genus Alligator of the family Alligatoridae. The treatment, unfortunately, has nasty aftereffects, causing its recipients (several of whom are living at Sinclair’s swampland clinic) to develop alligator-like traits, including scaly skin, growling voices, and rotten dispositions. Now Sinclair is trying to counteract these effects with another treatment, exposing his victims, er, patients, to doses of cobalt-60 radiation. Of course, things go dreadfully wrong—when don’t they in a horror film—as Paul is transformed into what Donald Willis calls a “full-fledged alligator person,” and the movie heads towards its gruesome climax in the swamp.
According to John Brunas, TAP was actually made by Robert Lippert’s Associated Producers, a low-budget specialist, and then distributed by Fox to serve on a double bill with its own production of The Return of the Fly. Although TAP can be likened to a “sizeable number of Saturday matinée monsteramas featuring a variety of radioactive, gargantuan, or teenaged terrors,” says Brunas, it was really “a sober, bleakly atmospheric film.” Beverly Garland recalled that director Roy Del Ruth treated the movie seriously and “’worked very diligently to make it honest.’” And indeed, Brunas notes, the film “effectively sustain[s] an aura of pervading gloom and futility throughout.” Though TAP was made independently on a small budget, it doesn’t look it. As Gary Svehla observes, a 1950s B-horror film made in widescreen format “was something rather special,” with the film’s CinemaScope process producing a “denser, far-reaching tapestry of mood, monsters and fright.” And TAP is beautiful to look at. Karl Struss’ gorgeous, black-and-white photography in the swampland scenes creates both beauty and terror, as gators rise suddenly out of the depths, their long bodies a dark streak of menace in the shimmering water. Note also the scene where Joyce stands in a doorway listening to an unknown man play the piano. The perspective created—the darkened room in the foreground, the light from the background streaming in from the half-opened door, touching each object with silver and shadow—brings a haunting sense of isolation, both physical and emotional, to our heroine’s experience.
Still, TAP is definitely schlocky horror. Any film that boasts a guy wearing a rubber alligator head is not aiming for the art crowd. And like in many 50s monster flicks, characters speak an implausible, pseudo-scientific jargon in order to cover questionable plot points (just how are these guys turning into gators again?). TAP indulges heavily in what could be called its scientific-medical discourse, which even structures its narrative. The plot has a framing story of two psychiatrists (Bruce Bennett, Douglas Kennedy) putting Joyce into a narco-hypnosis-induced trance; the film proper becomes an extended flashback, during which she recalls events so traumatic she has no waking remembrance of them. Several episodes deal with the ‘alligator people’ and their treatment (“Give him additional hydro-spray therapy,” Sinclair orders for one fractious patient); at one point Joyce sees a group walk by, their bodies robed, their faces hooded and masked, like a sinister order of monks. And then there are the scenes of Sinclair’s cobalt-60 treatments, with both humans and alligators strapped to steel gurneys, a huge projector irradiating them with gamma- and x-rays. Such scenes can’t help but chill us into a remembrance of the film’s Cold-War-era background, a time when, Bryan Fruth notes, “the atomic bomb [so] permeated the public consciousness” that its impact on “the collective imagination” seeped into the decade’s popular cinema. What TAP’s radiation scenes also recall is a real-life medical horror, the 1950s-1960s secret atomic medical experiments conducted by the U.S. government. As Mick Broderick argues, TAP, amongst other 1950s horror and sci-fi films (e.g., Creature with the Atom Brain, Bride of the Monster, The Gamma People, The Atomic Kid), “foreground[ed] human experimentation with nuclear technologies” prevalent at that time.
But while one strain of TAP may have been up to the minute in its science-fiction generic trappings, another definitely harks back to an older literary form, that of the Gothic. Bill Cooke writes that in TAP, “[e]very gothic chiller cliché is trotted out—locked bedroom doors, a stern matriarch harboring secrets, a monstrous groundskeeper, a piano playing mournfully in the night.” This is all true, but we would argue that the Gothic analogy in TAP goes beyond formulaic tropes. The film may be what Svehla calls “an old-style horror romp…for the new pop-art generation,” but at its core it’s a classic Gothic tale, evident in both its visual and narrative style. It embodies what the author Snorri Sigurosson defines as the essential Gothic trait: combining natural and fantastic events to produce a specific effect in the audience—an emotional release achieved from confronting, and recognizing, a deeply repressed horror.
“Have you ever seen a nightmare crawling?” The sensational trailer for The Alligator People. Note the use of widescreen cinematography. “In screaming Horrorscope!”
No doubt, at the word “Gothic,” you might come up with images of drafty, cobwebbed castles in which vampires and werewolves lurk. You wouldn’t be far off: the roots of the Gothic, as a genre, go back to the late 18th-century and Horace Walpole’s novel, The Castle of Otranto, which, as the title indicates, takes place in a castle, with specters popping out from every corner. For those not familiar with Gothic fundamentals, a concise breakdown can be found in Robert Harris’s article, “Elements of the Gothic Novel.” Per Harris, Gothic elements include ancient castles, an aura of mystery, warning omens, high emotion, women in distress, threatening males, and images of gloom and horror. And, as Cooke indicates, TAP does contain these Gothic motifs. We get, if not a castle, at least a melancholy mansion, The Cypresses, complete with its overbearing Southern matriarch, Mrs. Hawthorne (played by British actress Freida Inescort, who has trouble wrapping her clipped English vowels round a drawling Southern accent). We get the mystery, in scenes of Mrs. Hawthorne and Sinclair discussing Something that cannot be Named: “If she should tell anyone—the police—it would spoil our last chance!” We also have Mrs. Hawthorne’s peculiar ideas of Southern hospitality, which include locking Joyce in her bedroom at night, to prevent the latter from snooping for clues. Our menacing male comes in the form of Lon Chaney, Jr., who plays Mannon, a hard-drinking, hook-handed, gator-hating Cajun lewdly lusting after our damsel in distress. (Chaney’s performance is so gleefully over the top that he makes an innocuous greeting sound like an invitation to unimagined debaucheries; he’s the film’s most entertaining character.) Doom and gloom are handed out aplenty, as in a thunder-and-lightning-charged storm scene, in which Joyce pursues her husband through a rain-drenched swamp, stumbling over what look to be actual, real, live, and very annoyed gators (our hats are off to Miss Garland for braving such a scene!). And there’s the swamp itself, an ominous setting that, as Joyce says, is “wild and primitive”; its very existence, redolent of a vast, immeasurable past, looms over the story and its characters, like a portent of an unhappy fate.
But the Gothic heart of the movie is the Alligator Man himself—or, as the title says, the ‘people’ (as though the alligator transformees are a kind of identity group, ready to form their own union). What characterizes the Gothic monster, writes Sigurosson, is its status as an ‘in-between’—“of being [something that is] both and neither.” The monster “differs[s] from the accepted norm of human life”; it occupies a border between the familiar and the deviant. As such, the form of the Gothic monster is the culmination of the simultaneously natural and fantastic Gothic setting from which it arises. Its monstrosity, its ‘neither/nor’ beingness,’ is meant to jolt its audience with the spectacle of a profound, unacknowledged fear—the dissolution of identity itself. Sigurosson gives the example of the Frankenstein monster, a living creature created from bodies of the dead, incarnating a death-in-life contradiction; our horror of this monster comes from how it reminds us of our horror of death (the ultimate threat to identity). Likewise in TAP, the Alligator Man is horrific because it is suspended between the beast and the human; because it is both, it can be neither. It is monstrous because its existence is outside any accepted, acknowledged, identifiable norms. By inhabiting a space that is beyond human identity, the Alligator Man makes us question our own—we, too, might be animal-like monsters, prone to our worse instincts. Even the camera confronts us with the creature’s monstrosity by inscribing it cinematically; the alligator-headed Paul (played by stuntman Boyd Stockton) poses before us and slowly turns his (its?) head slowly from side to side, taking advantage of the wide CinemaScope screen to force us to view the monstrous, long-jawed visage in full profile—a profile that is no longer human.
Of course, viewers might object that all this Gothic stuff is just decoration, a way of gussying up a standard horror tale. Brunas notes the film’s “ridiculous (and consequently hilarious) climax,” when Paul, turned instantly into an alligator, races for the swamp in all his rubber-suited glory (and still wearing his trousers, as the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film observes). But Brunas also notes how TAP’s “admittedly far-fetched melodrama” is geared “toward a mature audience by concentrating on the human tragedy beneath the surface chills.” Svehla points out that the film is really about dual losses of identity—Joyce loses her memory of who she was because she has “repressed her former life of horror”; while Paul loses his actual humanity. If the film provokes laughter, it also provokes sympathy. Willis calls the film’s ending “oddly evocative,” and notes the poignancy of the scene where Paul/Alligator gazes into the swamp water and sees his reflection (Willis compares it to the scene of Karloff’s monster seeing his own reflection in a stream and reacting with horror). TAP may be B-horror, but B-horror, as Val Lewton fans know, has a way of embodying our most potent fears about who we are—and what we are afraid we might be under the skin. Perhaps it’s only in the most fantastic stories that we can confront our truest realities. If the Alligator Man, looking at himself, sees his fate, we in the audience, looking with him, may also see ourselves.
Broderick, Mick, “Nuclear Frisson: Cold War Cinema and Human Radiation Experiments,” Literature/Film Quarterly, #3, 1999
Brunas, John, “Shock Drive-In Presents The Alligator People,” Scarlet Street, #10, Spring 1993
Cooke, Bill, “Dog Bytes: Conquest of the Alligator Swamp Women of Riddick,” Video Watchdog, #113, November 2004
Fruth, Bryan, others, “The Atomic Age: Facts and Films from 1945-1965,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, #4, 1996
Harris, Robert, Elements of the Gothic Novel, October 13, 2010, http://www.virtualsalt.com/gothic/htm
Sigurosson, Snorri, The Gothic: Function and Definition, Leiobeinandi: Guorun Guosteinsdottir, June 2009
Svehla, Gary J., “DVD Reviews,” Midnight Marquee, #75, 2006
Willis, Donald C., Horror and Science Fiction Films III, Metuchen, NJ, and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1984