Monday, October 6, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 1: The Alligator People (1959)

I love crocodilians--alligators especially, but I have plenty of love for crocodiles, caimans, and gharials, too. I'm also rather a strange person. So it should come as no surprise that if someone told me, "I can cure you of [whatever ailment needs curing], but everyone who has taken this particular cure previously has turned into an alligator man," I would still enthusiastically agree to the procedure.

Therefore, I'd probably be a terrible victim of mad science--though perhaps a great superhero--as most people would consider turning into a were-gator a very bad thing. And they certainly wouldn't be very happy with their new spouse turning into one.

Which brings us to the case of one Nurse Jane Marvin (the incomparable Beverly Garland), who is currently assisting Dr. Wayne MacGregor (Douglas Kennedy) at a sanitarium. As Dr. MacGregor explains to a colleague he has invited over, Dr. Eric Lorimer (Bruce Bennett), when Nurse Marvin assisted him with a hypnosis experiment she spun a tale so unbelievable that he knew he had to have a second opinion on it.

Nurse Marvin again agrees to undergo hypnosis with Dr. Lorimer present. Quickly she reveals her name is actually Mrs. Joyce Webster, and she was married--or maybe, she still is. She was married to Paul Webster (Richard Crane), a pilot. The wedding almost didn't occur, as Paul was in a horrible crash and was more dead than alive--yet somehow they find themselves laughing about it as they sip champagne aboard the train to their honeymoon destination. Joyce just writes it off as a simple mistake by the doctors, but Paul is very serious when he says that he was as much a mass of human hamburger as they say. He's trying to explain how that could be, when the newlyweds are interrupted by the arrival of some telegrams.

Joyce receives some no doubt ribaldrous comments from her fellow nurses, but whatever it is that Paul receives shocks him so much that without a word of explanation he hops off the train when it stops briefly to pick up mail and he vanishes into the night.

Joyce spends months in a futile effort of tracking him down, until she finally uncovers the address of The Cypresses Plantation where Paul grew up when searching his school records. It's as likely a place as any to find him, so she makes her way to Bayou Landing, Louisiana. Hopping off the train, she finds a wooden crate on the platform marked "Radioactive Material: Cobalt 60." She somehow deduces that the crate is destined for The Cypresses and, apparently being a very lousy nurse, she sits right on the crate to wait for it to be picked up. I don't care if the box inside is lined with lead, I'm not sitting on radioactive isotopes willingly.

Well, thankfully for Joyce, a truck from The Cypresses arrives and out pops Manon (Lon Chaney Jr, who was really down on his luck at this point), a hook-handed Cajun whose largely non-existent accent comes and goes as frequently as his hook bends at the wrist. Manon agrees to give her a lift to the plantation. On the way in, Manon has to clear a branch out of the road--which allows Joyce to witness two guys having a ridiculously difficult time lassoing a lethargic six-foot alligator. This gives Manon a chance to tell Joyce all about the deadliness of the swamp and its quicksand, water moccasins, and gators--dirty, stinkin', slimy gators!

Manon doesn't like gators, in case that wasn't clear, and he further demonstrates by horrifying Joyce when he runs one over with the truck. It's unharmed, somehow--gators are tough, but against a truck from the mid-20th Century, I'd bet on the truck--and Manon pauses in his cackling to clarify that, yep, a gator took his left hand.

I can't imagine that will be important later, can you?

Joyce finds herself not exactly welcomed by the matron of The Cypresses, Lavinia Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort), who bristles at the mention of "Paul Webster", but otherwise acts as if Joyce is a horrible liar. Mrs. Hawthorne, or "Vinnie" as we'll come to know her, orders her thrown out, but Toby the butler (Vince Townsend, Jr) points out that the next train won't be until morning. So it is agreed that Joyce can stay, provided she never leaves her room.

At night, the household is disturbed by a drunken Manon firing a revolver at alligators in the swamp. It falls to poor Toby to go out and reason with the armed drunk. Joyce interrogates Louann the maid (Ruby Goodwin) when the woman comes to check on her, but Louann can only tell Joyce that the house is deeply troubled. Joyce manages to snatch her room key as Louann leaves so she snoop about later if she chooses.

Meanwhile, Vinnie goes to visit Dr. Mark Sinclair (George Macready) at his lab. Dr. Sinclair is busy helping to sedate someone in white robe, hood, and mask. Whoever they are, they are incapable of any vocalization beyond a guttural muttering, and Dr. Sinclair is deeply upset that one of his nurses knocks the person out with a punch to the jaw. After sedating the mysterious patient, Sinclair goes to meet with Vinnie. The two discuss how they overlooked the school records and now must deal with keeping Joyce in the dark. There is talk of the cobalt treatment, using the recently delivered isotopes--which Vinnie distressingly refers to as "the cobalt bomb" (!)--but Sinclair is not certain it will work, and it may make things worse.

Keeping Joyce in the dark soon becomes a moot point. A mysterious figure in a trench coat wanders into the house and begins playing the piano--as all mysterious figures do late at night when others are trying to sleep. Joyce hears something familiar in the music and goes to investigate: and promptly discovers the figure is Paul, whose skin now looks like an expensive wallet. She doesn't actually recognize her husband, but he recognizes her and flees back into the swamp--leaving inexplicably muddy footprints and water on the piano keys.

Paul finds Vinnie as she heads back to the house and, speaking with a decidedly croaky voice, he declares that Joyce must leave on the morning train.

The next morning, Dr. Sinclair arrives at the plantation house in his Swamp Buggy and introduces himself to Joyce. He makes idle chit-chat about the swamp being the cradle of life, but Joyce still tries to prod him for information. Sinclair is a better actor than, well, the actor playing him--but Joyce still sees through the act and Sinclair politely retreats to his lab. There he has one of his underlings handle the cobalt with ludicrously inadequate protective gear, while talking about how six seconds of exposure is lethal, and readies what appears to be a Death Ray projector.

Vinnie discovers that Joyce has not left on the train as planned and goes to confront Joyce. She promptly gives up on the whole "we have nothing to hide" facade when Joyce insinuates that something has been done to Paul, and reveals that she is in fact Paul's mother.

So, when Paul returns home at night to play piano, he is confronted by Joyce. He promptly flees into the swamp just as a storm picks up. Joyce gives chase, stumbling over obviously muzzled live alligators and one sorry animatronic crocodile before Manon rescues her from an angry boa constrictor pretending to be a cottonmouth (I'm guessing). Manon takes her back to his bungalow to get her warmed up. Unfortunately, Manon's insistence on Joyce removing her wet clothes turns out to have nothing to do with his concern for her health. Joyce screams when Manon attempts to force himself on her and the brute knocks her cold with a punch from his good arm.

Luckily, the scream was heard by Paul and he barges into the shack, brawls with Manon, and then carries Joyce away--leaving Manon to bellow my favorite line into the night, "I'll kill ya, alligator man! Just like I'd kill any four-legged gator!" When Paul brings the unconscious Joyce back home, Vinnie pressures him into agreeing to tell her the truth. It is agreed that in the morning, Dr. Sinclair will explain.

And so he does, after keeping Joyce waiting while he aims his cobalt-powered Death Ray at a live alligator as part of a test to see if say Ray will actually help Paul's condition. Then, knowing Joyce is a nurse, he goes about trying to explain exactly how he's been playing God with his alligator patients. You see, in advanced organisms like humans, body processes are controlled by the nervous system--in less-developed animals, they are governed by chemicals. Dr. Sinclair was specifically interested in the healing powers of one particular hormone--hydrocortisone.

Aw, yeah, that's the stuff.
Figuring that hydrocortisone would be much stronger in more primitive creatures who need chemicals to control their bodily functions, he began focusing on lizards and how certain lizards can detach and regenerate their tails. He claims that they are even some who can regenerate lost limbs. (There aren't) Naturally, he decided to devote his research towards finding a way to apply this regenerative capability to humans--by isolating a protein chemical from the pituitary gland of crocodilians. Specifically, a local variety.

So, Dr. Sinclair injected this chemical into the veins of volunteers who had lost limbs, broken bones, and suffered other severe injuries. The worst of this was Paul, naturally, and every last volunteer recovered miraculously...until they began to change. Apparently, there was some kind of additional chemical in the mix that had a transformative effect. As Dr. Sinclair shows Joyce when he reveals a patient whose very brain has been affected, so that only a sun lamp will calm him down.

And I'm just gonna pause for a moment to bask as well--in the glorious rays of terrible movie science. First, you've probably noticed that the miracle regenerative treatment derived from reptiles that turns its patient into a reptile is the origin of Spider-Man's foe, The Lizard. But at least Marvel had the good sense to use, you know, lizards. If your goal was to isolate the hormone that allows lizards to regrow lost tails--which, I may add, is not ever a perfect regrowth--why would you choose to isolate hormones from alligators? Alligators, apart from being unable to regenerate anything, are not lizards. That's like discovering a hormone in bats can cure cancer, so you go about extracting hormones from orcas. If he needed an animal that generated lots of this hormone due to its size, he could have chosen monitor lizards to experiment on.

I guess "The Komodo People" just didn't have the same ring to it.

At any rate, Dr. Sinclair thinks he has a cure and Paul is determined to test it out that night---30 seconds of exposure to gamma radiation via the Death Ray. The trouble is that Dr. Sinclair has no idea if it will cure Paul, kill him, or accelerate the process.

Joyce demands to be present, and so shortly husband and wife are reunited before he goes under the beam. Joyce assures Paul she would have loved him anyways. Paul insists he thought he was doing the right thing and is adamant that the procedure take place at once. So Paul is strapped to a rotating table, the Death Ray sounds its piercing whine--

And then Manon barges in. For some reason, Manon's mere presence seems to cause the Death Ray equipment to go on the fritz, and that's before he starts punching everyone and barges into the room with the projector--only to discover that his quarry has changed into something straight out of his nightmares.

"Grr! Raarr! STOP LAUGHING!"
Manon's terrified flailing unfortunately allows him to discover just how good a conductor his hook is. Paulligator stumbles away from the Cajun-style Cajun, so he can cause his mother to faint and Joyce to scream before he tears off into the swamp. Joyce gives chase, which means she and Paulligator are the only ones clear of the blast radius when Dr. Sinclair's equipment goes nuclear.

"My God! We're gonna need 10 gallons of lotion!"
Paulligator, naturally, gets into a fight with an ordinary alligator. The fight ends in a draw, and then, as Joyce watches helplessly, Paulligator stumbles into quicksand and disappears from her view.

Back in the framing device, the psychiatrists are stumped. The polygraph shows that she wasn't lying--and indeed Dr. MacGregor did some research and concluded that there was a Paul Webster and a Dr. Mark Sinclair, both of whom's whereabouts are unknown. Both doctors agree that it would be best to not tell Nurse "Jane Marvin" about the tale she told them. If she buried it that deep, she clearly wouldn't handle having it brought back to the surface...

As a child, when I discovered science-fiction and horror films from the 1950s and 60s--and even the 30s and 40s--I immediately fell in love. I would pour through library books on the subject, especially Jeff Rovin's Encyclopedia of Monsters, which at the time was insanely comprehensive and up-to-date. I don't recall if it was there or in another book that I first encountered a publicity still of the titular monster from this film, but naturally it made an impression.

Even as a kid, that monster mask looked pretty hokey, but as someone who loved crocodilians--even then they were my favorite animals--I could not resist the siren song of a movie about people who turn into alligators.

However, circumstances plugged my ears with candle wax. No video store or library near me had it, it never played on the whopping four channels I had regular access to, and neither was it ever available for sale. So I didn't see this until I bought it on VHS in high school. By that point my tastes had changed a fair amount, but my love for 1950s monster movies had never dimmed.

And it's a good thing, too. This film hits so many of the notes you'll find in 50s monster movies that it's practically a composite. You have an unnecessary framing device that makes the whole film a flashback, a scientist whose attempts to help people result in monsters, a disgruntled underling who exacerbates the monster problem, ludicrously inaccurate science, and a delightfully silly rubber monster.

Like many of its ilk, it takes a long time to get going. As with the previous year's The Fly (like this film, a 20th Century Fox production), we don't actually get to see our promised monster until the film is almost over. And while there is, technically, more than one alligator person in the film, you could still call its title misleading. So a modern audience might find the film boring, but I think I've summed up my disdain for modern audiences before.

What's really important is whether the characters we spend the film with before the monsters show up are enjoyable or not. It's true that Frieda Inescort and George Macready are terrible actors, but Beverly Garland is her usual awesome self and Richard Crane does a great job as the mutating Paul. The role that truly stands out, though, is Lon Chaney, Jr. as Manon. I've also been much more fond of Chaney than most classic horror fans, but he just fits the role of Manon--most likely because at the time of the film his poor life choices meant that he didn't really have to act to play a down on his luck, drunken slob. It almost borders on bad taste.

The Alligator People is no unsung classic, nor is it a lost epic of incompetence on the level of Ed Wood. It is, however, a fun time--both as a film on its own merits and as a goofy exercise in bad science. If that appeals to you on the level it appeals to me, well then you should check it out.

Just watch out for quicksand, moccasins...and dirty, stinkin' gators.

Thus begins day 1 of 2014's HubrisWeen, where I and several of my b-movie comrades dive into 26 horror/sci-fi movies a day--one for each letter of the alphabet--culminating with the last film on Halloween. We're all just slavishly copying the pioneer of this madness, Checkpoint Telstar.

Click on the banner above to check out what the other maniacs chose, won't you?

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