Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Alligator People (1959)

Warning: I'm pretty sure various alligators were hurt for our entertainment during the making of this movie, so if you're sensitive about these things, this might be a film to avoid. It was a borderline case for me

Under hypnosis, nurse Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland), tells her psychiatrist boss a peculiar tale about a time when she was the freshly married Joyce Webster.
The honeymoon trip with her new husband Paul (Richard Crane) was rudely interrupted by a telegraph whose content convinced Paul to jump the train and disappear out of his wife's sight. Before the wedding night. Her husband's sudden and inexplicable flight wasn't something Joyce was willing to tolerate, but her attempts at finding out where her wayward husband got to were less than successful. It's not as if Joyce had much to go on anyway. Paul never did talk about his life before he met her except for mentioning a plane crash he shouldn't have survived and his belongings are strangely devoid of any hints towards his past.

Some off-screen sleuthing eventually led Joyce to Paul's former college fraternity and from there to the place he gave as his home address - a creepy mansion deep down in the swamps of Louisiana. Of course, Joyce made her way there as soon as she was able, finding a certain Mrs Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort) living there with two black servants and hook-handed, gator-hating, alcoholic handyman Manon (Lon Chaney Jr.) in the swamps nearby. Mrs Hawthorne purported not to know anything about Paul, but Joyce easily enough understood the old lady was lying for some reason, and would not be moved until she found out what truly was going on.
One suspects our heroine didn't exactly expect the truth had something to do with a friendly mad scientist (George Macready), the pituitary glands of alligators, and a husband with a very bad case of psoriasis.

Despite pretending to be a horror movie in its marketing material, The Alligator People is a SF melodrama with a slight influence of Southern Gothic for all but the final five minutes of its running time. As expected, it's also patently ridiculous in its set-up - so Paul is absenting himself from his new wife because he might start to look ugly, despite the way his face looks anyhow? -, silly in its science - did you know the best hope against curing the unpleasant aftereffects of alligator pituitary gland serum is radioactivity, or that cobalt 60 is transported in simple wooden crates you leave standing around at a rural train station until a mad alcoholic can get them? -, and not as clever as one would like it to be - after all, the only way the film's writer Orville H. Hampton can think of to produce a meeting between scaly-faced Paul and Joyce is to have the up to that point perfectly capable and sane woman suddenly run hysterically through a swamp full of very laid-back alligators by night, during a storm, and nearly getting raped by Lon Chaney Jr. whose leering she seems completely oblivious towards.

Despite these problems, the film has its moments. Director Roy Del Ruth (a man with a long and varied filmography starting in the early 1920s and nearly ending here) manages from time to time to conquer his workmanlike tendencies and shoot an atmospheric scene or two before it all breaks down in a very badly done bit of last minute monster rampage that only seems to happen because the producers suddenly realized they were selling this as a monster movie and not the science fictionally enabled melodrama they actually had. Plus, when she's not going into uncharacteristic hysterics, The Alligator People unexpectedly gives always theoretically capable (which is to say, as much as the movies she was in allowed her) b-movie actress Beverly Garland much opportunity to shine as the sort of heroine that even comes to her melodramatic moments with honesty. When the script isn't betraying her, Garland is very convincing as the driven, capable (for a 50s genre movie) woman out to understand why the hell her jerk of a husband suddenly disappeared. She gives the character just the right amount of frailty and desperation at the edges of her strength, making her much more believable than anyone or anything else in the movie.

Unfortunately, nobody else in the cast got the memo about Garland's kind of naturalistic acting, and so Inescort, Macready, and Chaney are mugging their roles up with fierce abandon. Chaney clearly has fun with his role (and who wouldn't have - he has a hook hand and rants about the evil of alligators, after all), while Macready speaks every single one of his lines (even "good morning", if he'd ever say something quite as prosaic) with a pathos and overemphasis I can only explain with him assuming every single member of any giving movie audience to be dumb and deaf. Even though I do approve of a good bit of overacting, I don't think these performances do the film any favours at all. They sure as hell don't do Garland's performance the justice it deserves.

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