Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Movies: Lowering the BAR.

There's a lot to recommend Sergio Martino's 1979 croc-attack flick, currently circulating about the states under the species-dubious title The Big Alligator River. Unfortunately, the star of the film, the titular "big alligator" isn't one of them. By turns interesting and awful, BAR is an almost textbooks example of what's so fascinating and frustrating about Euro-schlock genre cinema. An admitted rip off the legendary US blockbuster Jaws, Martino and his screenwriters managed to pack into their allusive work notable and meaty references not only to Spielberg's shark-attack masterpiece, but also to the ur-text of nature revenge films: King Kong. The whole thing is topped off with a nice anti-colonial theme that, if perhaps a bit tangled, is played straight and earnest enough to dispel any doubts about the filmmakers' sincerity. Martino's handles actors well, shows a considerable amount of style behind the camera and in the editing room, and has a knack for the sort of efficient pointillist characterization needed in large ensemble action-heavy flicks.

That said, he also seems perfectly happy to build his movie around some of the worst special effect seen this side of an Ed Wood film, smoothers his films with an awful sub-porn grade Italio-funk score, edits some of his movie with a butcher knife woefully in need of sharpening, and seems utterly tone deaf when it comes to shifting gears between different emotional registers.

The plot, while predictable, is handled nimbly enough that it never feels like a grind. Daniel, a NYC commercial photographer, and Bait, pro model and victim, are hired by Mr. Bad Idea. Mr. Idea is developing Paradise House, a tropic resort in the jungles of Africa (played gamely by Sri Lanka). Mr. Idea is hoping that Daniel and Bait can develop a photo ad campaign based on the resort's raw natural beauty and Bait's hot bod. Daniel and Bait are introduced to Thug, Mr. Idea's bully/overseer, and Ali, the resort's resident customer service manager and anthropologist.

At first, the whole think looks like paid vacation, but then Bait sneaks off with a local man and breaks a regional taboo by getting her freak on during the full moon. For this no-no, an ancient river god appears in the toothy form of a gianormous crocogator-thingy to make quick work of Bait and her summer fling. This scene is interesting in that it complicates the otherwise simple anti-colonial theme of the piece. Though very little is made of it, the incident that kicks of all this crocogator-driven bloodshed is not actually and example of white's exploiting Africans (or semi-blackfaced Sri Lankans, in this case). Rather, it's a local man and an imported African American woman trying to get a little nookie on a verboten night. The local tribe interprets the return of the big lizard as a sign that they shouldn't have befriended the white and now must chase them off. The whites interpret the whole thing as either a symbol of their own arrogance or the native's inherent tendency toward irrational violence. Either way, the mounting violence that follows is, on both sides, the result of ignorance and poor communication. Because the rest of the film leaves this complication unexamined, I'm not sure if this view of colonialism as a communal tragedy of errors is intentional or subtle. Either way, it's what ended up on film and it's neat to ponder.

Timed as it is with the sudden mass desertion of the resort by the native workers and the discovery of a mauled canoe, Daniel suspects there's something sinister. He's given to insights like that. It's a natural outgrowth of being a photographer – professional observer, don't you know. He explains his concerns to Mr. Bad Idea, who dismisses because Amity, as you know, means friendship. Um . . . I mean, because guests are arriving for the resort's initial season and the last thing Paradise House needs is Daniel's patently absurd paranoid fantasies of some sort of crazed native uprising/crocogator bloodbath harshing the mellow.

Daniel and Ali decide to investigate by themselves. Not only do they discover that the natives blame the palefaces for the return of their vicious river god, they discover a Ben Gunn-ish missionary who can confirm the monster beastie's existence.

All this build's up to a climax that owes more to Poe's Masque of the Red Death - with a lavish nighttime hotel party that turns into a slaughter on both river and shore – than Jaws.

As far as big toothy water reptile stories go, BAR has everything you need and a little more. Like the Corman-produced, Sayles-scripted Alligator, it even uses its somewhat silly genre premise to lightly evoke some welcome social themes.

What it utterly lacks is a nice crocogator. Crocogator flicks, which I fancy I've seen more than a few of, live or die by the pleasure their scaly protagonists can provide. Viewers don't necessarily need the most realistic monsters, but the do need the monster to thrill them. The ballyhooed "alligator" of the title is a travesty. In the model shots, the crocogator is played by what appears to be a small rubber gator, the kind you can find being sold for a buck or so in museum and zoo gift shops. While its tail leisurely sways back and forth as it swims, the rest of its body is completely immobile. Its legs are perpetually looked in a bent standing position (NB: though the beast is in standing position, the film avoids ever showing it on land – the technical problems involved be well beyond the budget/ingenuity of the filmmakers) and it's mouth hangs open like a scoop. In the non-model shots, the crocogator appears as a static mouth and back unit. The tail, which turns out to be prehensile, flails about on its own; we get no shots ever showing it connected to the rest of the animal. Even by the admittedly low standards of the crocogator horror/action genre, this fails it hard.

Generous souls will, perhaps, want to give Martino the benefit of doubt. The film's last scene involves a stagey wink meant to punctuate an in-film joke. Maybe, the kindly viewer might propose, the wink telegraphs to the viewer that this whole thing has been a spoof. Perhaps, instead of rip-offing Jaws, the film was actually a send-up of the American big fish rampage flick. There's not much evidence of this in the flick. The crocogator attack scenes are staged grimly – if poorly – as opposed to the occasional tongue-in-cheek set pieces in Alligator. Furthermore, there's little in the "making of" featurette available on the No Shame Cinema (and there's you're problem, you should have some) disk that Martino is anything other than impressed with his lame monster. Still, a layer of ironic detachment would have gone a long way here and if the viewer wants to add it in the post-post-production phase, it can't hurt.

Another way to view it would be to suggest that it's a sort of experimental giant crocogator flick created with the goal of making a giant crocogator film that foregrounds everything except the monster that's central to the subgenre. Evidence is scarce for this interpretation too. But, personally, that's how I choose to redeem the film.

Now let's never mention The Big Alligator River again.


Sasquatchan said...

I know you dig this specific sub genere, but I'm not sure I agree with not showing the full gator as being a fault.

Granted, doing it cheesy doesn't help either.

But isn't one of the bigger sellers for Jaws (and Alien) that you specifically didn't see a lot of the monster ? Of course, that put flicks like Alien more in the suspense category than outright horror.. But knowing it's there, right off screen, or under the water, was the bigger scare/thrill than, say, modern CGI enhanced ultra monster flicks.

I Like Horror Movies said...

Excellent review and I agree whole heartedly with most of your points. I think it would have been even stronger if they had shown even LESS of the gatordile, sice what they did show only adds up to ridiculousness. Looking forward to Island of the Fishmen which is finally seeing a R1 release soon!