We humans have an abounding admiration for Science.
We insist Scientists work in our best interests, and, happily, they’ve provided us with some marvellous discoveries, such as electricity, painkillers, and the periodic table. We trust scientists to come up with Beneficial Answers, but when things go awry – which can happen – we quickly become jaded.
A campy sci-fi/horror flick from the 1950s looks at the healing potential of science and what happens when Things Go Wrong.
The Alligator People (1959) stars Beverly Garland as a young nurse looking for her missing husband (Richard Crane). They aren’t married for a day, for pete sake, before Crane leaves to make a phone call and is never seen again.
If that weren’t enough of a Rip Off, Garland spends the next three years searching for him. Strangely, she finds little evidence to prove he actually existed. This isn’t the only bizarre thing about her husband; he also claims to have survived a plane crash, but, mysteriously, he bears no scars.
Garland’s search leads her to Crane’s Louisiana home, a stately mansion near an alligator-infested swamp. Here she meets Crane’s cold and uncooperative mother (Frieda Inescort, suffering from multiple sclerosis in real life), along with Lon Chaney Jr., a bitter, one-handed labourer who shoots as many gators as he can.
What do the swamp and these alligators have to do with the missing Crane? You’ve probably already guessed.
The whole affair begins when a kindly Doctor-Turned-(Almost)-Mad-Scientist (George Macready), discovers a gene in alligators that reverses damage in human bodies. This theory is based on regeneration and the way some reptiles (e.g. salamanders) can regrow their tails.
After Crane suffers his near-fatal plane crash, Macready kidnaps him and injects him with gator hormones. This serum rebuilds Crane’s body and restores it so completely that even scars vanish.
But! The movies always tell us there are nasty Side-Effects, and this one is No Different. Alas, the hormones are aggressively invasive; they take over the host body and turn it into a reptile. Over the next three years, Crane evolves into an alligator.
Macready is sorry for experimenting without researching Long-Term Consequences, but the film doesn’t dwell on it; we’re told these patients are no longer human. (This raises an interesting philosophical questions, but the film sidesteps them.)
Yet, the whole business is somewhat terrifying: A lone doctor recklessly prescribing an untested medical treatment, believing it to be Safe and Effective.
Ultimately, it’s neither, and now it is too late.
The Alligator People is a brisk, entertaining film at a mere 74 minutes. There are some cheesy effects, such as rubbery alligators, but Crane’s gator makeup is impressive.
The cinematography is fabulous – it was filmed in CinemaScope – and the acting is Top Rate. There’s also a respectable script with an ending you may not expect.
Twentieth Century-Fox bought the film from independent producer Jack Leewood, because it needed a second feature to pair with Return of the Fly (1959), as part of a monster double bill.
The Alligator People, with a budget of about $300,000 (approx. $2.9M US today), is a cult favourite. Get this: Variety placed it at #9 on its 2019 list, “Ranking the 10 Most Terrifying Gators and Crocs in Movie History in Honor of Crawl”.
The next time you’re looking for a 1950s monster flick, we hope you’ll catch a restored version The Alligator People.
The Alligator People: starring Beverly Garland, Bruce Bennett, Lon Chaney Jr. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Written by Orville H. Hampton. Twentieth Century-Fox Studios, 1959, B&W, 74 mins.