While on vacation at one of those reptile tourist traps in Florida, a young girl gets herself a baby alligator she names Ramon. The family returns home to Missouri, where dad gets pissed off and flushes the little lizard down the toilet. Twelve years later, in St. Louis, animals and people are turning up missing. Well, at least partially missing: random body parts seem to be occasionally turning up at a sewage treatment facility. Officer David Madison (Robert Forster) is promptly put on the case by his superior (Michael Gazzo, and his crazy eyebrows). The first victim - a sewer worker - seems an almost random pick, but the second victim - pet shop owner Luke Gutchel (Sydney Lassick) - has ties to a company called Slade Pharmaceutical. The scientists there have been working on some kind of new growth hormone. They've used stray dogs that Gutchel has managed to round up in their experiments and have also enlisted his services in disposing of the carcasses once they're through with them. Gutchel has cut corners on the costs of cremating the dead doggies by simply tossing them into the sewers.
Ramon, meanwhile, has grown to somewhere between 30 and 40 feet in length by consuming all of those hormone-laced canines. Since he's no longer getting frequent handouts from Gutchel (you know... since he ate him), he'll eventually be forced above ground for his next meal. Well, after chowing down on a few more officers and a nosy reporter (Bart Braverman), that is. Because David keeps coming back to the pharmaceutical company, president and founder Mr. Slade (Dean Jagger, in his final role) pulls some strings and gets him shit-canned. But David doesn't let that, or insecurity about his male pattern baldness, stop him from getting the gator. He receives help from Marisa (Robin Riker), the now-grown young girl who brought baby Ramon to St. Louis to begin with. Marisa has parlayed her love for all things reptile into a career as a world-renowned herpetologist. There are a lot of good scenes in here, but my personal favorite is when the gator crashes an outdoor wedding reception and gobbles a bunch of people up, thrashes others with its tail and smashes a few people inside a car.
Director Lewis Teague, who'd later direct the King adaptations CUJO (1983) and CAT'S EYE (1985), writer John Sayles and the cast have managed to successfully walk a very fine line here. There are plenty of laughs, but they're weaved into this in a way where they never turn it into a send-up, or even really a horror-comedy. It's more of an action-oriented horror film, played rather straight by many of the actors, where the humor is simply an added bonus. The creature effects are done two different ways. A real gator is placed on model sets for some of these, but at other times use is made of an excellent animatronic one. I thought both were very convincing. And damn, don't you just miss the hands-on labor that went into creating real fx back before CGI came into the picture and turned everything into a laughable cartoony mess? Just compare the old school fx seen here to anything you'll see today on the SyFy Channel. I rest my case.
In addition to sharp writing, plenty of action (and explosions), fun nods to everything from The Honeymooners to THE THIRD MAN and effective special effects, there's also a pretty great cast here. Forster makes for an ideal and relatable 'everyman' type of lead. Henry Silva has perhaps the most amusing bit as a skirt-chasing great white hunter who ends up having a fatal encounter with the gator in a dark alley... after drafting some black ghetto youth to be his 'native' guides! There's also Jack Carter as the city mayor, Perry Lang as a police officer who gets eaten after helping disarm a mad bomber, Sue "Lolita" Lyon (in her last role to date) as the news reporter Silva hits on, Angel Tompkins as another reporter, John F. Goff, Mike Mazurki and many other familiar faces. After filming, the animatronic gator was donated to the Florida Gators to use as a mascot.
Saying this is probably the best of the killer crocodile / alligator movies might not sound like much, but there are actually many more of these than most people realize. Just to start the list there's EATEN ALIVE (1976), CROCODILE (1979), THE GREAT ALLIGATOR (1979), KRAI THONG (1980), KRAI THONG 2 (1985), CROCODILE EVIL (1985), DARK AGE (1986), CROCODILE FURY (1988), ENEMY UNSEEN (1989), KILLER CROCODILE (1989), KILLER CROCODILE II (1990), LAKE PLACID (1998) and its three sequels, BLOOD SURF (2000), CROCODILE (2000), CROCODILE 2: DEATH SWAMP (2002), PRIMEVAL (2007), ROGUE (2007) and SUPERGATOR (2007). Alligator itself was popular enough to spawn its own sequel: ALLIGATOR II: THE MUTATION, in 1991.