If one ever wanted to know what would happen if a cheesy 1950’s monster flick had a respectable budget, this is it. The Alligator People is an obscure film that, if one were to judge by its well-worn theatrical trailers, was shot in 4:3 aspect ratio with cheap film stock and lenses. Nope, it’s right there at the end of the trailer in the title card. This sucker was shot in glorious 2.35:1 CinemaScope. Academy award-winning director of photography Karl Struss, who was getting set to wrap up his long career in Hollywood, made sure everything looked great. It was way more than this movie deserved.
Directed by Roy Del Ruth from a screenplay by Orville H. Hampton, The Alligator People tells the desperate story of Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland). Told in flashback in a totally unnecessary framing story (but useful to get this flick to 74 minutes in length), Joyce relates how, while traveling on honeymoon, her husband receives a mysterious wire while their train passes through the bayous of Louisiana. Her husband, Paul (Richard Crane), hops off the train at a lonely station in the middle of nowhere, leaving Joyce frantic as the train leaves the station.
The only recourse Joyce has is to hire private investigators to find out what happened to her husband. It turns out that Paul didn’t choose that lonely train stop at random. He hails from a local plantation called The Cypresses, and Joyce tracks him down there.
At first Joyce gets no answers and little cooperation from either the lady of the plantation, Mrs. Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort), or a local doctor/scientist, Dr. Sinclair (George Macready). The only person with a positive response to her arrival is the caretaker, Manon (Lon Cheney Jr.), a drunken roustabout with a hook at the end of his left arm, the hand a victim to an alligator attack.
Being released in 1959, this was well into Cheney’s easy paycheck period. His purpose in the film seems to have been solely to get a name on the marquee, as his character is peripheral enough to have been excised. Cheney gave it his all, though, hamming his way through his performance.
Cheney wasn’t the only one, either. Garland is over the top in most scenes, as is Inescort. Then there is Crane. His performance has everything to do with his character’s fate.
It turns out that, during World War II, Paul suffered grievous injuries in a plane crash. He was healed completely through the efforts of Dr. Sinclair, using a serum he had derived from alligator hormones, or something. Sinclair used the process on many patients, in fact. But now, a year later, the serum is showing side effects. The patients are turning into alligators. That was the telegram that disturbed Paul so. What a coincidence that he received it just minutes away from his home train stop.
Paul’s skin turns scaly, and Crane begins to play him sort of like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, hunching over and rasping his voice. The makeup and Crane’s affectations are downright hilarious, especially in scenes where he’s competing with Garland’s intensity.
It’s the climax of the film where this flick turns into a true howler. The trailer gives away the game, but if one hasn’t seen it, Paul’s transformation progresses. The makeup is replaced by a foam gator’s head, and his torso and arms are covered by a very unconvincing rubber suit.
Not all of this movie takes place within the cozy confines of the plantation. There are a number of swamp sequences, and they feature all the great tropes. Gators, snakes, and, of course, quicksand. Garland and whoever was in the Paul suit in the final act, maybe it was still Crane, were game for some danger. Garland, especially, had moments where she was stumbling around live alligators. I bet she only got paid scale.
The Alligator People slots well into the universe of 1950s b-cinema. The plot is ridiculous, the acting is deliciously overwrought, the effects are bargain basement, and the creature makeup is outrageous. The only way this film could have been funnier is if Bela Lugosi had still been around to play Dr. Sinclair.
This flick has fallen through the cracks, but rejoice, it now enters the hallowed Shitty Movie Sundays Watchability Index, displacing Red Sonja at #172. All that kept it from going much higher was the poor framing story, and a plot that could have used a little more conflict.