The Alligator People (1959)

Hello, everybody, it’s Pam. For our next review, Nate and I tried to pick a movie that wasn’t too excruciating to watch. As I recall, my exact words were, “I don’t care what we review, as long as it isn’t another Old Mother Riley movie.” I think we managed to do a little better than that. The subject of today’s review will be The Alligator People, a 1959 movie made by a genuine movie studio (Twentieth Century-Fox), with experienced actors although not stars (Beverly Garland, Lon Chaney Jr.), with competent writers, and with non-wobbly sets. Granted, it didn’t have a very big budget, but certainly more care was taken in its production than we usually see in the kind of movies MMT tends to review.

The opening credits take us through a Southern swamp, distinguishable from swamps in other parts of the country by the Spanish moss hanging from trees. Then the scene shifts to a drastically different location, where we’re quickly given some important information: a car license plate shows we’re in Louisiana, a sign says the building in the background is the Webley Sanatarium, and since the sign also says “Doctors Only,” we assume that the middle-aged man getting out of the car must be a doctor. The lettering on the office door he goes through tells us he’s visiting someone named Wayne McGregor, who is in the Neuropathology Department.

That sign was just painted five minutes ago.

The movie doesn’t fool around with setting up the plot. In the next minute we find out the visiting doctor is Erik Lorimer, and he’s been asked to come help with a puzzling case. It seems that Dr. McGregor had enlisted the help of a nurse called Jane Marvin to help him with his research on narcohypnosis techniques, and under hypnosis, she revealed something that he found hard to understand. Dr. Lorimer may be something of a ladies’ man -- he comments twice that Jane Marvin is very pretty (something I disagree with, her mouth’s too big and she seems to have too many teeth). Also, both doctors refer to her as a “girl,” when she’s clearly in her thirties. This I’m sure was a sign of the time the movie was made in. Jane is duly sedated, and we find out what’s bothering Dr. McGregor. He states that people sedated with pentothal can’t lie (I have no idea if this is true or not, but for the purposes of the movie, let’s accept this as a fact), but when he asks her what her name is, she says, “Joyce Hatton Webster.” She goes on to say that she’s Mrs. Paul Webster, but then says she’s not sure she ever was married. Dr. McGregor questions her further, and she goes on to relate how she met Paul Webster, whereupon the movie switches scene.

Jane/Joyce and the doctors.

We see a young couple on a train. They’re obviously newlyweds, and the next couple of minutes are mostly billing and cooing, although we do learn that Paul Webster was recently a military pilot who was in a serious plane crash. However, the happiness is interrupted by the porter bringing in several telegrams, one of which upsets Paul very much. In fact, he gets off at the next stop to make a phone call, which is of such importance that he’s still in the station as the train pulls out, leaving Joyce understandably rather upset.

Some nice character moments early on.

Back in the “present,” Joyce (or Jane, whichever you prefer), tells Dr. McGregor that she got off at the next stop and went back to the station where Paul got off, but when she got there, she found no sign of him. Not something a woman wants to happen on her honeymoon. The police couldn’t find him, but when she went through Paul’s things, she found his fraternity pin, and fraternity headquarters was able to tell her that he’d belonged to the chapter at Louisiana State University. University records showed that Paul originally came from Bayou Landing, a small town in Louisiana.

It’s all on the reels.

Joyce goes there and finds it’s just a wide place in the road, but at the train station she finds a large wooden crate labeled “Caution -- Radioactive Material -- Cobalt-60.” Joyce is startled to see it, but not as startled as I would be. I can tell you right now, there’s no reason anybody in Nowhere, Louisiana, would have any legitimate need for cobalt-60. Judging from the size of the crate, there’s quite a bit of it, too, although a lot of that would be (ought to be) shielding material. Joyce, however, is undisturbed enough to sit down on the crate (!), which has been left sitting on the platform like any other piece of freight. Possibly in 1959 that was realistic, I’m not familiar with transportation regulations for radioactive materials that long ago, but I can’t believe that even in 1959 just anybody could buy cobalt-60.

Someone call DHS!

Soon, though, somebody arrives to pick up the crate. He’s a seedy-looking unshaven man in a shabby linen suit who, just imagine, happens to work at The Cypresses, the plantation where Paul grew up. He kindly offers to drive Joyce there, and they set off after he loads the crate into his pickup, which he does quite handily considering that he has a hook where his left hand should be. The character’s name is Mannon, and he’s played by Lon Chaney, Jr. Biographical material on the Internet suggests that by 1959, Lon Chaney might not have needed much in the way of makeup to play somebody who was one step up from a derelict. At this point he still had a respectable career in movies, but years of heavy drinking had certainly taken their toll.

Like he’s on History Channel‘s Swamp People.

For a plantation big enough to have a name, the road leading to it is disappointing, since it’s a poorly-maintained dirt track. Joyce doesn’t look happy, and she looks even less happy when she sees two men by the side of the road wrestling and tying up an alligator. Her driver is entertained by the sight, but seeing that Joyce is unfamiliar with such pastimes, he hospitably informs her that she wouldn’t last ten minutes if she tried to walk through the bayou, what with the quicksand, the alligators, and the poisonous snakes. He also remarks laughingly that his hook is the result of a close encounter with an alligator, which does nothing to reassure Joyce.

These Southern folk are confounding to Yankees.

Despite the primitive road, The Cypresses itself turns out to be a nice traditional Southern-type pillared mansion. The front door is opened by a well-dressed African-American butler, suggesting that the family who lives here is wealthy. He lets Joyce in, and she’s greeted by a sour-faced elderly woman who seems less than pleased to see a visitor. She proves to be no help to Joyce, because she says she’s never heard of a Paul Webster, and she herself is Mrs. Henry Hawthorne. She must not be all bad, though, because she lets Joyce spend the night when the butler reminds her that there won’t be a train out of Bayou Landing until the next day. Then again, showing that maybe she is pretty bad after all, she tells Joyce sternly that she’s not to leave her room after dark.

I think that’s a dude.

Joyce is more than a little worried, but she feels she doesn’t have a choice except to stay. Some gunshots close to the house worry her even more. It apparently hasn’t occurred to her to wonder what a plantation could want with cobalt-60, which is something that would be bothering me a lot. Downstairs, Mrs. Hawthorne snaps at the butler to tell whoever it is to stop shooting because “the girl is still here,” which suggests that it’s more than an overenthusiastic and possibly drunk hunter getting carried away. Joyce panics and, forgetting her orders, tries to leave the room but finds the door locked. Just what is going on here? Nate, would you tell us?

The butler is not amused (or amusing).

Thanks, Pam, I’ll take us a bit further in the story of a woman obsessed with her past, and gators, lots of gators. Well, it’s pretty clear that the old lady of the house doesn’t want Joyce wandering around, which most certainly means that Joyce will indeed be wandering around at some point and stumble upon some Big Secret (these sorts of obvious plot set-ups always pay off). What Joyce discovers is some mysterious, trench coat-sporting, scaly-faced guy playing piano at half-past-dark, a man who literally jumps out a window to flee from Joyce. Joyce is afraid and concerned, though we only know that because her incessant voice-over tells us so, saving us the trouble of thinking for ourselves. Of course, it’s less a traditional real-time voice-over narration than “narration from the future” as Joyce is actually speaking from the psychiatrist’s couch many years later (that make sense?).

Why do all tortured souls in movies play the piano?

I have a real problem with the film’s whole framework at this point, as the occasional cut-backs to Future-Joyce in the psychiatrist’s office are clunky enough to pull me out of the movie. Really the whole flashback twist-plot thing is totally unnecessary in every way, the movie could be told “in real time” without losing anything and gaining back valuable running time. I remember saying the same thing about Killers from Space, where way too much time was wasted in setting up similar flashback scenes for no reason and it‘s not better in The Alligator People. Joyce’s voice-over is extra annoying as it’s not the slurry ramblings of an emotionally wretched woman under the influence of time and barbiturates, but clearly an actress reading lines from a script with her eyes closed. At one point, for example, she says evenly “I couldn’t rid myself of the premonition that each step was taking me closer to the secret contained in this shadowy house…” No one uses that many flowery adjectives and alliterations while hopped up on sodium pentothal.

Scrunchy eyes!

I’ll pull further off to the side here to mention that despite my picking on this movie’s plot and characters, it really is a very well made film from a technical view. As Pam mentioned, it had actual studio money behind it and they were clearly able to hire behind-the-camera crewmen who knew how to shoot and edit a good movie. One thing that impressed me greatly were all the well-lit interior shots, a hallmark of a budget not blown on bribing local drive-in theaters to please, please, please show my film, even if it‘s on a Tuesday afternoon (*sob*). When you can afford quality stand-up lights and a meter to get the distances right so your characters don‘t look like you filmed them in a windowless basement, you will always have a better movie. I should also toss a bone to them for the orchestral musical score, which is top notch throughout, not the typical library music or “the director’s brother-in-law’s son’s garage band who works for free” that you hear in most b-movies.

Nice blocking throughout as well.

Enough of that, back to the movie. While Joyce is poking into places she was warned not to poke into, old lady Hawthorne has left the manor house in a worried huff to visit a nearby laboratory where we get our movie’s first meaty chunk of exposition. It’s here, in a lab set that looks more like two hotel rooms and some sheetrock-and-plywood stand-up corridors, Doctor Sinclair is conducting experiments on hapless humans and equally hapless alligators, zapping them with radiation and heat lamps and full syringes of bubbly liquids as beefy hired-hands hold them down. I’ll jump ahead in the film’s meandering narrative and tell you what Doctor Sinclair is up to. In short, he’s trying to harness the unique biological ability of reptiles to regenerate/regrow lost limbs to help human patients who have lost arms and legs in accidents and to generally improve the human race (he‘s not a “mad scientist“ in any way). Things didn’t work out so well, however, and now he’s got a lab full of half-alligator mutants to try and cure. To do so he’s built a needlessly complex radiation shooter machine thingie, an “X-Ray Generator” that can produce an “explosion” of a “billion electron volts” when hooked up to a radioactive power source (like that crate of Cobalt-60, for example). He’s hoping that this new treatment plan will “cure” his subjects of their symptoms, which include badly-applied facepaint and foley’d-in National Geographic audio clips of alligators grunting, but it might just turn them fully into monsters. Or it might turn his alligator test subjects into Godzillas or Killer Croc from the Spiderman universe.

Sinclair’s bowtie just screams “Science!”.

Of course, anyone who has watched more than a few b-movies from the 1950s and 60s knows all too well what “radiation” of any shape or form can do to a normally benign animal. It’s been a common (overused) plot device (lame script crutch) for showing a menagerie of creatures turned into man-eating, woman-stealing, world-threatening beasties, including, but surely not limited to, gnawing shrews, swarming grasshoppers, roaring gorillas, skittering crabs, hulking lizards, sexy Cat-Women, Rooskie spies, freaky spiders, not to mention Hedorah, duh! This was 1959, remember, and the general public, especially the dumb horny teenagers at the drive-in watching The Alligator People on a Saturday night in West Texas, knew little about radiation and gene mutation and all that stuff they teach you at MIT.

PETA would not approve of this.

One of Doctor Sinclair’s test patients was, of course, Paul, who was just a mangled wreck from that plane crash before the Doctor shot him full of alligator genes and saved him. The treatment wore off eventually and Paul had to rush back to the lab immediately (thus fleeing the honeymoon train) and has been hiding out there ever since, slowly turning more and more into a reptile as nothing has worked to fix the problem. Joyce’s sudden appearance here in the swampy south has thrown a bit of a wrench in the machine as now they have to worry that she’ll tell the police and the Doctor will lose his AMA card. Joyce, however, just wants to find out what happened to Paul and she’s sure he’s here somewhere.

And he’d lose his stained glass window collection!

Anyway, back at the plantation, poor Joyce is in more trouble, and it‘s not just because the humidity is wrecking her hair. Handyman Mannon is drunk again and he’s got his squinty eye on the sexy Joyce. Catching her in a vulnerable moment in his shack out at the edge of the swamp (long story), he makes his move on her. But just when it looks like it’s going to get icky for her, a stuntman who looks vaguely like Paul runs in and starts fist-fighting with a stuntman who is kinda sorta built like Lon Cheney. The old drunk is bested and later fired by the plantation owner, but you just know that’s not the last we’ll see of him. Lon Cheney is really hamming it up in this movie something fierce, almost like he was actually godshonest drunk off his ass during the shoot and the director was afraid to say anything because the studio told him the name “Lon Cheney“ was the only real box-office draw The Alligator People had. It’s also never more apparent than in this scene that Cheney’s “hook hand” is a glove, you can really see his fingers moving under the leather as he wrestles with Joyce.

Thatz not cool, bro.

Eventually Paul comes clean to Joyce, even showing her his scaly face (which looks like it was drawn on with an eyeliner pencil…). Joyce, ever faithful to her wedding vows beyond all reason, says she doesn’t care if Paul is 75% alligator and still loves him madly (sure). Why is Joyce so obsessed with guy? How many years has it been since he abandoned her on the train? Hasn’t she moved on? She’s pretty hot, and she’s got a good job and a college education and all her teeth, she surely could find another man without any trouble.

She could aim higher than a reptile.

But she loves Paul and Paul still loves her and awwww…. Paul’s convinced that Doctor Sinclair’s last-ditch plan to zap him with a heavy-duty dose of Cobalt-60 radiation will do the trick, even though the Doctor himself is unsure of the side effects and efficacy of this untested treatment. He wants to do months and months of incremental experiments on alligators and other animal subjects before he tries it on a human, as rightly he should, but Paul wants to do the test now, like right now, this very night, and he won’t take no for an answer. Why the Doctor agrees to do the test so soon is a question for me, as so far he’s been portrayed as a pretty smart guy who does his best to do the right thing. Sure, he’s been experimenting on humans with animal DNA and stuff, and I’m pretty sure he obtained that Cobalt-60 shipment illegally, but he’s been trying to do everything following established protocols of scientific research. Perhaps he’s been swayed by his personal guilt at having caused Paul to turn into half-a-gator, even though he did save him from certain death at the same time, who knows. Whatever the reason, the risky test is a go. The lab is set up, the huge zapper machine is powered up, Paul is strapped to the table, and Joyce looks on pensively as the switch is thrown. Oh, hey, Pam, did we all forget about the drunken gator-hating hillbilly Mannon? Did he just go quietly into the night after being fired?

Still better than a prostate exam.

I think we all know that he did nothing of the kind. And sure enough, just as the Cobalt-60 is being focused onto Paul, who should burst in through the front door but everybody’s favorite coon-ass Cajun, Mannon himself, pistol in hand and looking worse than ever. In case you haven’t watched the movie and don’t intend to, I’ll point out that neither Mannon nor anybody else in the cast except the butler and the maid have an accent even approaching a Southern accent, let alone the distinctive Cajun accent you’d expect most of the people in the Louisiana bayou country to have. Did Mrs. Hawthorne hire only Northern expatriates? Mannon may not be as out of control as he seems, because when the maid orders him out of the house, he goes without an argument. But he’s looking for Paul, still wanting to kill anything that has any alligator in it, and it doesn’t look as though he’s going to stop until he finds him.

I think Cheney really is drunk in this scene.

Meanwhile, back at Dr. Sinclair’s lab, Dr. Sinclair tells Joyce that Paul must not – absolutely must not – be exposed to the radiation for more than 30 seconds. Does anybody care to guess what’s going to happen? So, Dr. Sinclair flips a switch, and stopwatch in hand, watches as a beam of light strikes Paul’s head. Yeah, two things wrong with this: if exact timing is so crucial, why not build an automatic timer to cut off the beam at precisely 30 seconds of exposure, rather than depending on a stopwatch and human reflexes? Also, Cobalt-60 doesn’t radiate energy in the visible spectrum. It looks as though somebody ran an eraser over the negative to give the illusion of a beam of light.

Love that checked skirt.

Well, what we all knew was going to happen, happens. Mannon breaks into Dr. Sinclair’s house, although it doesn’t look as though anybody even bothered to lock the front door, and despite the (very limited) efforts of Dr. Sinclair’s assistant, Mrs. Hawthorne, and Joyce, he yanks Dr. Sinclair away from the controls and knocks him unconscious. (See why an automatic timer would have been a good idea?) Smoke starts coming out of the control panel, suggesting that Something Bad is happening. Mannon goes inside the treatment room, and in what’s a fairly dramatic moment, looks through the clouds of smoke to see that Paul is now completely alligator! However, he’s still wearing pants. Also, he can still walk upright. In fact, he looks a lot like a Gorn, although it’s unfortunately quite obvious that his new scales and spinal bumps are in fact attached to a tight-fitting T-shirt. I guess the makeup budget was running low.

Where’s his tail?

Mannon must not have been expecting quite such a drastic change in Paul, and instead of shooting him with that pistol he’s been carrying and using most of the movie, grabs a cable and electrocutes himself. Paul runs out of the treatment room, and Joyce helpfully screams, Mrs. Hawthorne even more helpfully screams and faints, and who knows what’s become of the assistant, who apparently vanished into thin air after his futile attempt to grab Mannon. Dr. Sinclair is still down for the count, and smoke is now pouring out of every crevice of his equipment. His future research funding seems to be in serious jeopardy, and so does Paul, who’s running into the swamp. Joyce loyally runs after him, which seems to be a bad idea since she’s wearing a tight skirt and high heels, but maybe it’s just as well, since the entire house bursts into flames behind her. Paul spends a little time wrestling with an alligator for no apparent reason (or maybe it’s an old friend and he’s hugging it?), but eventually breaks loose and runs into a patch of quicksand, where he quickly sinks out of sight to the accompaniment of Joyce’s screams. It looks as though Joyce’s interspecies marriage is now over for good.

I guess she can pawn that ring now.

But there’s one plot point still to be cleared up. As you may recall, thanks to the voiceovers periodically interrupting the action, all this happened well in the past. In the movie’s present, Joyce/Jane has been under sodium pentothal, telling what happened to her once upon a time, all of which she’s now forgotten. What are Drs. McGregor and Lorimer going to do, especially since they aren’t sure if all this really happened to her, or if it was just a fantasy? They finally come to the conclusion that if this really didn’t happen to her, something equally traumatic must have happened, and since she’s made a good life for herself, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie and not tell her what she revealed. I have to agree, I’m sure that remembering that your husband turned into an alligator is seriously traumatic, although I hope I never find out firsthand. So Jane/Joyce is allowed to walk out of their office with her past still buried in oblivion, toward what we hope is a happy future with marriage to a 100% human being.

Really, though, who is this guy to make that decision for her?

I can’t hit this movie too hard. It’s easy to find minor faults, but essentially it was a good basic horror movie with some real suspense. I find it very hard (okay, nearly impossible) to believe that any woman would continue to stay loyal to a man that’s no longer fully human, and the sight of Joyce running frantically after the Gorn-like Paul is impossible for me to believe. I mean, just the thought of that snout and those fangs coming anywhere near my lips would send me running as fast as I could in the opposite direction. Even though in 1959, divorce was something that good women didn’t do, this seems to be carrying fidelity to one’s husband past the bounds of sanity. Hey, in 1959, Louisiana probably still had anti-miscegenation laws – wouldn’t they apply here? But despite that, this movie’s worth watching. Is there anything you’d like to add, Nate?

Let it go, Joyce, let it go.

Well, Pam, I agree with you that it was better than it had any right to be, but that’s probably a feeling that will fade if you watch it more than once a lifetime. Some good acting and a unique Bayou setting set this one apart from other b-movies of the year, but it’s still a movie about a guy turning into an alligator and there’s only so much you can do with that. Speaking of the alligator transformation, kudos to the production team for showing us GatorPaul in all his scaly, toothy glory. In so many b-movies the BIG MONSTER REVEAL moment is a letdown, as the beastie is only shown in shadows or in fleeting glimpses. I know this is mostly because the monster costumes were usually terrible disasters of paper mache and duct tape best left for half-darkened sets and medium distance shots through a hazy filter, but it always feels like a cop-out when directors build up a final reel monster and then fail to deliver. Not so with The Alligator People, GatorPaul is front and center in broad daylight for extended minutes in the climax, allowing you to see every stitch line and every zipper pull, but at least giving you some sort of satisfying pay-off to all the lead-up about mutant alligator-men. Worth the price of admission just for that.

That is a lot of vinyl.

The End.

Written in October 2013 by Nathan Decker and Pam Burda.

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