Perhaps because the title sounded silly, or maybe because I am slightly resistant to 1950s horror, or just possibly because the film is always advertised depicting its…well, dopey-looking monster, Roy Del Ruth’s The Alligator People (1959) was a film I avoided for years. In fact, I only broke down and watched because I’d seen a lot of Del Ruth’s 1930s films, been impressed, and decided to see just what he was doing at the end of his career making something called The Alligator People. Well, it turned out that it was actually pretty darned good — within certain limitations.
It’s all about Joyce Webster (Beverly Garland) finding out just why her husband, Paul Webster (Richard Crane) unceremoniously abandoned her and disappeared. A trail of clues lead her to one of those stately plantations horror movies insist are located all over the Louisiana swamps. There she is met by a very unpleasant woman (Frieda Inescort) who insists she’s never heard of Paul Webster. Of course, she’s lying (he’s her son), otherwise there’s be no movie. Turns out that Paul was nearly dead, but was brought back to his old self by scientist Dr. Mark Sinclair (George Macready) with the aid of some concoction or other derived from — yep — alligators. What appeared to be a boon to mankind, alas, turned out to have a drawback. It turns Sinclair’s patients into alligator people. (At one point Sinclair even says, “Go on and say it — alligator people.”) Oh, like all such scientists, he has a theory for a treatment that might reverse the process — but, of course, it’s dangerous.
Now, it should be admitted that the alligator people don’t — for most of the movie anyway — look like alligators. They merely grow something like alligator skin and start behaving like wild animals, which, I guess, is disconcerting enough. But it’s not especially risible — just far-fetched. It’s only in the last few minutes of the film that Paul goes full alligator man — thanks in no small part to drunken, gator-killing Lon Chaney, Jr. (who very likely was drunk). And this is definitely a sight to behold — one that causes a reasonable amount of amusement for the viewer. It’s as if a movie being made by more or less rational adults had been taken over by some creative ten-year-olds. The thing is there’s a certain daffy charm to alligator Paul that makes it all seem as forgivable as the early scene where Joyce just casually sits on a crate marked,”Caution: Radioactive Material.” Well, there weren’t any benches.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Alligator People Thursday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.