Wednesday, 18 September 2019
The Great Alligator
(Sergio Martino, 1979)
(Holy cow, what a poster.)
The dog days of summer, when indoor spaces temporarily begin to feel like pizza ovens and the simple pleasures of falling into a stupor beckon, demand simple, undemanding entertainments; things which will induce neither tension nor agitation.
It is a time for films with bright photography – so as to hold up better to the shards of sunlight persistently creeping through the blinds - and vaguely familiar actors hanging around near oceans or lakes, or perhaps unhurriedly plodding through a jungle or something. Either way, there will probably be some water-side locations, plenty of time spent with people mopping sweat from their brows – and probably a monster.
Because, yes, having a monster is pretty important for these things. After all, none of us want to admit that we’re really just tuning in to enjoy the ambient pleasures of watching a bunch of poorly characterised bozos lazing around near a large body of water for 90 minutes. Our friends and loved ones would laugh at us for this, and would consider it insufficient justification for, say, refusing to open the curtains, or go outside.
So we need a monster. (Preferably just one monster though, and a relatively slow one confined to a particular habitat if possible, because we might tend to get a bit jumpy and over-excited if there are multiple monsters running about the place.)
Oh no, we must be able to tell our co-habitants, I can’t go to the park. I’m busy watching a movie about a KILLER CROCODILE. It’s exciting - you know, like ‘Jaws’.
Of course we know it isn’t, but we need the excuse.
What I’m leading up to, basically, is the declaration that *now is the optimum time* to watch Sergio Martino’s ‘The Great Alligator’ (Italian title: ‘Il Fiume del Grande Caimano’, aka ‘Alligator’, ‘Big Alligator River’).
If you’ve heard/read anything about this this film, you may have encountered the suggestion that Martino was reduced to shooting additional footage in his own bathtub. In truth, the effects aren’t that bad, with the offending shots of a motionless miniature croc flopping about amid some fish-tank flora wisely reduced to split-second duration, but nonetheless, ‘The Great Alligator’s failure to deliver a great alligator has understandably done a great deal of damage to the film’s reputation over the years.
This is a shame, because in most other respects, it’s surprisingly good. In fact, it is hugely entertaining, assuming you’re in the right frame of mind [see paragraphs above for details]. Certainly the best Italian ‘Jaws’ rip-off I’ve seen to date (beat that for a back-handed compliment), it stands as a worthy addition to the filmography of one Italian genre cinema’s most consistently rewarding directors.
Like a number of Martino’s most memorable films, this is essentially a generic cross-breed, taking the tried n’ tested ‘Jaws’ formula and boldly splicing in aspects of both the slightly questionable “erotic travelogue” films which enjoyed a brief vogue in the late ‘70s (you know, all those post-‘Emmanuelle’ movies about Europeans holidaying in exotic climes and getting, ahem, “awakened” by the dusky locals), and subsequently from their even more questionable cousin, the cannibal horror sub-genre.
As such, our setting here is a luxurious new tourist resort – ‘Paradise House’ - hewn straight from a stretch of remote, untouched jungle by an ambitious entrepreneur identified only as “Joshua”, played by Mel Ferrer (the ever-dignified former husband of Audrey Hepburn whose late career embrace of exploitation won him the unique distinction of having appeared in both ‘Eaten Alive’ (1976) and ‘Eaten Alive!’ (1980)).
As is often the case with these things, ‘The Great Alligator’ seems reluctant to divulge the actual location of Senor Ferrer’s resort. The implication seems to be that we’re in the Amazon here, but closer scrutiny of a map of shipping routes visible on the wall of Paradise House’s radio room suggests that we’re actually in Sri Lanka, where indeed the film turns out to have been shot, back-to-back with Martino’s horror film ‘Island of the Fishmen’, which shares much of the same cast and crew.
According to the – ahem - extensive research I carried out for this review, Sri Lanka’s inland waterways do indeed remain home to both deadly crocodiles (though NOT alligators) and indigenous tribes of hunter-gatherers, so yep – that’s enough realism for me to be going on with. Well done everybody. (1)
Stepping into this treacherous tropical paradise is our hero for the day, Daniel, a hard-boiled photographer played by the late, great Claudio Cassinelli, who delivered a wonderfully off-beat lead performance a few years ealrier in Martino’s audacious giallo/poliziotteschi/comedy mash-up ‘The Suspicious Death of a Minor’ (1976, and a lot more fun than the English title suggests). (2)
Daniel has been hired by Ferrer’s character to shoot publicity material for the resort, and he arrives in the company of a statuesque black model, Sheena (Geneve Hutton in her only screen role). Sheena smokes cigarettes with a long holder and glowers at everyone, so we know she is cool. When Joshua ventures to tell her, apropos of nothing, that “I believe Eve herself may have been black,” Sheena replies, “all I know is, Adam was a stupid shit”, and terminates the conversation right there. I think I like Sheena.
Perhaps it’s just me though, but her presence left me rather confused about the nature of Cassinelli’s character. I mean, his cynical, serious-minded demeanour, five-day stubble and practical wardrobe of camo fatigues all seem to suggest a wildlife or current affairs photographer. But, if he’s brought a model to pose for him on the other hand, wouldn’t that make him a fashion / glamour photographer, which calls for a whole other set of clichés..?
I’m guessing that this chronic stereotype malfunction probably results from the fact that ‘The Great Alligator’s script rather unfeasibly required the services of no less than five credited screen-writers (including such eminent figures as George Eastman and Ernesto Gastaldi amongst their number), so…. best just let it go, eh?
Naturally, Daniel soon finds himself gravitating toward the only resident of Ferrer’s artificial idyll who is neither a greedhead nor a simpleton - and the fact she’s a knock-out blonde no doubt helps too - Ali, played by the one and only Barbara Bach. Though she is essentially employed as Joshua’s right hand woman, Ali is also serious and sensible and dresses appropriately, so she must know what’s what, right? Indeed, it turns out that she is actually an anthropologist who has only taken the job at the resort in order to allow her the opportunity to research the culture of the local tribespeople, with whom Joshua has negotiated a tenuous ‘supply & demand’ type employment agreement.
And finally, rounding out our central cast of (predominantly) white interlopers, we find a surly “Great White Hunter” type guy (SGWH henceforth) who acts as Ferrer’s head of security / all-purpose native overseer. He immediately proves himself a bad ‘un by making crude advances toward Barbara, I mean, uh – checks notes - Ali. Don’t worry about him though, because he never really gets around to doing very much. Merely weep for the fact that he is inexplicably not played by George Eastman, in spite of the fact that Italio-exploitation’s most ubiquitous heavy even apparently wrote some of the damn story for this thing.
Throughout his career, Sergio Martino could usually be relied upon to bring stronger filmmaking chops to the table than most of his contemporaries, and ‘The Great Alligator’ is no exception. The film’s locations are singularly beautiful, the sets constructed within them are fairly impressive, and Giancarlo Ferrando’s photography captures everything with flair and professionalism, ensuring that, if nothing else, this is certainly a very nice movie to look at.
The editing (courtesy of Eugenio Alabiso) is also extremely good here, with swift and relatively complex cutting rhythms keeping things pacey even during the script’s more lugubrious moments, and successfully distracting our attention from the more questionable effects work. The strengths of Alabiso’s editing are particularly evident during the film’s opening stretch, in which proceedings are livened up by some exuberantly stylish montage sequences, built around the snappy, rhythmic freeze-frames of Cassinelli’s photography, and cut to the tempo of Stelvio Cipriani’s enjoyably unconventional, minimalist score.
Though Cipriani’s work here is unlikely to ever rival the cult status enjoyed by his compositions for Ovidio Assonitis’s similarly themed ‘Tentacles’ (1977), ‘Great Alligator’ certainly finds him striking out in some interesting directions, ditching his trademark staccato harpsichord workouts to deliver a set of lithe, rubbery p-funk and electro/disco jams, foregrounding heavy, fretless bass and quasi-“tribal” percussion in a manner which somehow manages to sound more enervating than cheesy. Worth a listen.
Back to the movie meanwhile, and, as Daniel has a good look around the resort complex, we learn amongst other things that an impregnable underwater fence has been installed in order to keep crocodiles out of the designated swimming area, thus allowing guests the thrill of paddling around “nose to tail” with the terrifying beasts. Can we detect a touch of grinding, new-career-low despair creeping into Mel Ferrer’s eyes as he takes a deep breath and gamely reassures us that there is no way this can possibly go wrong?
Sadly, ‘The Great Alligator’ also forces us to bear witness to one of Italian cinema’s more surreal incidents of animal cruelty, as the SGWH guy is shown tying a bunch of tiny piglets to ropes and throwing them into the water, ostensibly as bait to attract crocs to the ‘viewing bridge’ from which tourists are encouraged to gawk at them.
It is impossible to process the fact that this scene only exists in order to allow Cassinelli’s character the opportunity to decry the resort’s inhumane treatment of animals (“is cruelty one of the features of the tourist programme?” he sneers), whilst the filmmakers meanwhile are actually throwing cute little piggies into the river in order to demonstrate this. I mean, one hopes that they pulled the little critters out again, and that they survived their ordeal, but I’m pretty damn sure they didn’t enjoy it very much. W and indeed TF, Sergio?
Meanwhile, the ‘erotic travelogue’ bit comes into play as Sheena becomes entranced whilst watching the local tribe’s rituals – perhaps there is supposed to be some sub-text about her “returning to her roots” or something here, but probably best not think too deeply about that – and instigates a flirtatious exchange of body language with a young male tribesman. Naturally enough, this leads to her ducking the resort’s sunset curfew in order to enjoy a nocturnal rendezvous on the tribe’s forbidden ‘Island of Love’.
Unfortunately however, Sheena’s career as a budding Emmanuelle is abruptly curtailed when the couple are rudely interrupted on their journey home by none other than KARUNA, the tribe’s big daddy God-Alligator, who, apparently angered by the incursion of modern civilisation into his realm, has returned to stir shit up, selecting Sheena and her heretical beau as his first victims. Man, what a drag!
Filling us in – in a manner of speaking – on the legend of Karuna, we find none other than good ol’ Richard Johnson (whom you’ll recall either as that “the boat can leave now” guy from ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, or as Dr Markway from ‘The Haunting’, depending on the classiness of your horror fandom), appearing in an extremely strange cameo as a missionary who has been driven out of his mind after witnessing an earlier manifestation of the God-Gator, and is now reduced to a raving, loin-cloth clad wild man with full-on Ben Gunn style wig and beard, living alone in a remote cave, where he has kept himself busy by carving a big alligator head out the rock itself.
Perhaps the scene in which Daniel and Ali track Johnson down and try to talk to him was intended to invest the movie’s monster with a certain degree of Lovecraftian grandeur, but to be honest, it’s all just… really weird. Which usually strikes me as a good second best, so, great! Let’s move on.
This being a ‘Jaws’ rip-off, you will of course be unsurprised to hear that missing persons, native unrest, giant alligator sightings and sabotaged radio equipment constitute no problem whatsoever to Mel Ferrer, as he happily welcomes his first cohort of gawping, cretinous guests to Paradise House for the resort’s big opening weekend.
This brings us to another reason why ‘The Great Alligator’ may have taken a critical battering over the years – namely, the fact that the film’s English dub is extremely poor, certainly far below the usual high standards of the era’s export-minded Italian product, and the sections of the film dealing with the tourists suffer particularly badly in this respect.
Although more sympathetic voicing could only do so much to mitigate the fact that Martino’s extras seem to have been directed in such a way as to suggest that they spend every second of the way gluttonously downing bottles of wine, indulging in goon-ish disco dancing, leering at each other and wantonly disrespecting the natural environment, their sloppily rendered comedic banter, alternately incomprehensible and irritating, certainly doesn’t help matters.
As tension mounts, alligator attacks intensify and the local tribespeople become actively aggressive – parading around in big, paper mache crocodile heads, wielding spiky weapons and so forth – the scene is set for Martino to swiftly shift gears from the movie’s rather leisurely opening hour and propel us straight into a closing act in which things go absolutely bananas, in a manner reminiscent of only the very finest ‘80s Italian genre films.
This descent into chaos is initially instigated when Joshua – obviously - decrees that the scheduled nocturnal river-boat trip he has laid on for his inebriated guests must proceed, turning a blind eye to the growing body of evidence suggesting that conditions on the river increasingly resemble a cross between ‘Piranha’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’ (even the SGWH guy thinks it’s a bad idea, forgodssake).
Meanwhile, the tribespeople have kidnapped Barbara, and tied her to a wooden frame on a special sacrificial canoe, sending her out onto the river as an offering to placate Karuna! Naturally, Cassinelli is soon in hot pursuit, machete in one hand, outboard tiller in the other.
Before too long of course, Ferrer’s party-boat (the thatched-roofed ‘Tarzan’s Raft’, which frankly looks to have been a pretty precarious vessel even before anything went wrong) is sized up by the God-Gator, who prepares to split it down the middle like a human-filled taco. Safe to say, any of those extras who were assured they wouldn’t get wet have another thing coming, and the production’s invaluable “big chomping jaws” puppet and fake blood supply are about to get a serious work-out.
Although *literally everything bad* which has happened in this film has been his fault, Ferrer’s character suddenly manifests a surprising degree of concern and competency once the proverbial shit hits the fan, working hard to save lives and get his inebriated charges to safety, instead of making a cackling getaway with a big suitcase full of money, as is usually de-rigour for his character-type… but needless to say, his last minute efforts at redemption prove too little too late.
When the first bedraggled passengers scale the spiked anti-croc fence make it back to shore, they discover that the tribe’s warriors have launched a full-on slash n’ burn massacre against the resort’s remaining residents, turning the place into a flame-lashed killing field, littered with corpses. Soon, children, OAPs and Hawaiian shirted yahoos alike are being crushed and trampled against that underwater fence, as Karuna chomps away behind them and a rain of flaming arrows meets them from the shore. It’s absolute fucking carnage, and it’s all your fault Mel, all your fault!
By taking us from the “sittin’ on the dock of the bay” drowsiness of ‘Tentacles’ or Lamberto Bava’s ‘Devil Fish’ to the “literally ANYTHING could happen next” mayhem of Cannibal Apocalypse or ‘Nightmare City’, with healthy doses of sleaze, racial insensitivity, unintentional hilarity and flat-out weirdness along the way, this absurd little number definitely earns its place in the pantheon. If you can summon the strength to reach for it the next time the mercury creeps up to ‘heat wave’ levels on a weekend afternoon, you will not be disappointed.
(1) If you’re wondering at this point about the whole alligator/crocodile thing, well, good luck to ya, although in fairness this IS briefly addressed in the script, when Barbara (who is clever) notes that the idol worshiped by the local tribespeople represents the head of an alligator, which are not native to – quote – “the orient”, thus marking the film’s monster out as something immediately distinct from the area’s resident crocodiles.
(2) An always likeable actor in both lead roles and character parts, Cassinelli is sadly probably best known today for the manner of his untimely death, which occurred when a helicopter stunt went badly wrong on the set of Martino’s ‘Hands of Steel’ in 1986.