20th Century Fox needed a B movie to run with their Return of the Fly as the A feature. They bought a black and white CinemaScope film from an independent producer (Leewood) and released them together in the summer of 1959. The Alligator People (AP) has a similar people-animal hybrid monster trope, but a weaker story line. At its core, AG is the well-worn tale of a misguided scientist who tries to help mankind but instead creates monsters. Even though not as strong a film as its more famous stable mate, AG still has higher production values than many of the decade's B films. The photography is lush, even though black and white. Beverly Garland stars. Her strong performance makes up for the somewhat tepid acting of the others, Lon Chaney excepted. His portrayal of the drunken creepy Cajun is over the top, not tepid.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Two psychiatrists discuss the case of Jane Marvin. Under sedation, she recalls an entirely different life and identity. The flashback begins. Joyce and Paul Webster are happy honeymooners on a train. Paul receives a sobering telegram. He gets off the train at a mail stop and disappears. A thin shred of evidence leads her to a remote plantation deep in the cypress swamps of Louisiana. People deny knowing Paul, but an odd country doctor, and a mysterious piano playing stranger in the night arouse her suspicions. Meanwhile, we see Dr. Sinclair working in his lab some distance away, on mysteriously hooded (and agitated) patients. Paul, with semi-gatorized face, pleads for a cure. When Paul returns home, Joyce confronts him. He runs out into the rainy night. She pursues, but gets lost in the swamps. Manon (Chaney) finds her and takes her back to his cabin. There, he intends to have his way with her, but Paul interrupts. They fight and Paul brings Joyce home. Doc tells all to Joyce. His experiments with alligator hormones helped injured patients completely heal, but an unknown other hormone also turns them into alligator people. Paul pushes for the cobalt treatment. While on the table getting the radiation, Manon breaks in and rampages. The equipment overloads. Paul is turned into an alligator-headed man. Manon is killed by high voltage. Joyce chases GatorPaul out in the swamp. The house explodes. GatorPaul is swallowed up in quicksand. Joyce is left alone, screaming. Flash forward. The two psychiatrists don't know what to do. Jane has adjusted so well by totally suppressing her former tragic life as Joyce, that they figure to leave well enough alone. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Beverly Garland puts her heart into the role and is well worth watching. Lon Chaney is entertaining.
Cold War Angle
This is thin, at best. Dr. Sinclair talks of the "power of a cobalt bomb" (his radiation treatment gizmo resembles a big dental x-ray unit) having the ability to remove the beast side of his man-beast alligator people. In the end, that same radiation, in too large a dose, turns a man into even more of a beast.
Hubris Deserts -- Dr. Sinclair seeks alligator hormones to help severely injured people heal. This, because skink lizards can regrow a lost tail, so reptiles have healing hormones. While partially successful, the hormone (or one within it) causes the patient to become a reptile. As things are getting worse, Dr. Sinclair says, "I feel like I've been playing God and now I'm being punished for it." Hubris gets its just deserts. Like many a misguided movie doctor before him, Sinclair is killed by his creation (in this case the machine blows up the whole house). Thus, AP delivers the traditional moral: mankind shouldn't go messing around with science. This not-so-subtle message is quietly underscored by the psychiatrists who heed the warning and do nothing about Jane (Joyce). Just leave her alone and let her be happy.
Gator Ranger -- Richard Crane plays the newlywed-turning-to-gator. The gator-skin mask, which he wears for most of the film, obscures his looks, but Crane is none other than Rocky Jones: Space Ranger. Crane played many roles after Rocky Jones. It seems a bit of a step down from having one's proud face on the side of a Silvercup Rocket, and star of your own TV series, to swamp freak.
Acme Isotopes -- AP echoes the fine 50s naive wonder at things nuclear. Radiation was the magic catalyst that could make monsters, cure bad breath, save the world from aliens, or destroy it in seconds. Radiation could do whatever the imagination could dream up. Radiation beams from a cobalt isotope are the wonder drug that are the cure for the nasty alligator side effect. Note the innocent ignorance regarding the shipment and handling of such deadly materials. The crate of radioactive cobalt is shipped in a wooden crate, by public train, and left untended at the small town station. Joyce, fresh from a later train uses the crate as a handy bench. Manon muscles the wooden crate into the back of his pickup as if it were full of tractor parts. Deadly isotopes are ordered up and shipped in the Wile E. Coyote idiom.
Gritty Edge -- Once scene in AP pushes the edge of gritty, for mainstream 50s sci-fi. This is the almost-rape scene when Manon "rescues" Joyce from the snakes and alligators in rainy night. He leeringly suggests that she take off her wet clothes. When Joyce declines, he wraps a blanket around her "to keep her warm" but it turns into a grope-fest. He says she "owes him" for saving her. When she screams, he knocks her out with one punch. As she lie unconscious on the bed, he grins as he peels back the blanket. Only GatorPaul's timely arrival interrupts the grimly inevitable. Chaney did a very convincing job as the lecherous creep.
Bottom line? As an independent production, AP is a notch above average. It makes an appropriate double bill with Return of the Fly -- two human-animal monster movies. The plot is little deeper than the usual indie B sci-fi, but the production values are higher. Garland is well worth watching, as usual.