Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Big Alligator River (1979)

From the late 1970s to the early/mid-1980s, you would be hard-pressed to find an Italian-produced horror/science fiction film that didn't have at least one scene with a helicopter in it. From Luigi Cozzi's Contamination to Lucio Fulci's Zombie and beyond (okay, maybe not The Beyond), a helicopter is seen either carting people into the heart of a jungle or spotting some unmanned craft (in a callout to Dracula's Demeter?) floating like an open door to a spider's web. My understanding is that helicopters had been around for some time, so it's not as if they were exploiting some new technology or craze. Does Italy have a corner on the helicopter-building market? Are helicopters free to rent for Italian citizens? Much like the Easter-egg-ish bottles of J&B whisky that pop up in the better-furnished studies of Italy like Hitchcock in his own films, helicopters seem to turn up like thumb prints on many Italian films of the time.

Sergio Martino's The Big Alligator River (aka The Great Alligator, aka Il Fiume Del Grande Caimano) opens with a helicopter carting Joshua (Mel Ferrer), the owner of the new Paradise House resort, into the heart of the jungle (see?). Accompanying Joshua are photographer, Daniel (Claudio Cassinelli), and the oddly-mute model, Sheena (Geneve Hutton). At the hotel, along with being introduced to the cruel Peter (Romano Puppo) and the voluptuous Ali (Barbara Bach), we discover that Joshua has been using the local native tribe, the Kuma, to help build and staff the resort. Soon, a very large alligator (the Kuma believe it is their god, Kroona) turns up to gnaw on the defilers of his people. Not good news with the first guests arriving soon for the resort's big, grand opening. 

The first thing that leaps out at you when watching this film is its resemblance to both King Kong and Jurassic Park (and, yes, Jaws, but to a lesser degree, I think). The first is obvious. You have a giant animal worshipped as a god by natives. You have our protagonists watching a secret ceremony and being discovered. You have a woman kidnapped and splayed out as a sacrifice to appease said god. On the later film, you have a nature preserve located in a remote location. You have the guests getting picked off by the preserve's attractions. Mel Ferrer takes the Sir Richard Attenborough role, though Joshua is far more avaricious than John Hammond ever was. You have the "child in peril" angle. Of course, Michael Crichton's novel was written about eleven years after The Big Alligator River was released. Still, there are a great many similarities (and dissimilarities, to be fair).

Martino's movie does seem to have a point to make (in much the same way as Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust), however. The natives are exploited by Joshua for his own ends. As their reward, he gives them blue jeans and Coca Cola. The natives are overjoyed, and the viewer is slightly horrified. It's this more than anything else (not the dynamiting of the landscape or deforestation) which seems to trigger the appearance of Kroona. Whenever venal, rich, white characters go into the jungle, they are invariably abusive and exploitive toward the native populace. There are almost always depictions of the despoiling and "civilizing" (or attempts at "civilizing") of these "savages." This invariably winds up biting the venal, rich, white characters in the ass, much to the audience's satisfaction. Nevertheless, sympathy toward the natives' plight does not guarantee a character's safety (especially in Italian films), and of course, the natives who align themselves with the white folks' objectives are the first to go.

Kroona as a character is firmly in the Kong-ian mold, yet he is portrayed as being truly an old, vengeful god. At no point do any characters say that he is just an enormous alligator (which we're told are non-indigenous to the area) with a taste for human flesh. And since his coming is presaged by his peoples' turning from him to American consumerism/status symbols, he becomes a representation of the wrath of the gods. Like the fickle Greek gods, who would strike down or transform in some ironic fashion their venerators as soon as look at them. Or the Catholic God of the Old Testament, who destroyed Sodom and turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt just for watching its decimation. And yet, Kroona displays no true intelligence or supernatural power. It's hinted that he may have pulled the helicopter into the river to prevent the humans' escape, but it could just as easily have been the Kuma who did it (and this is also suggested in the narrative). He never makes it onto land to attack anyone (as if he becomes powerless out of water), and there's never even a moment where he and a human stare into each others' eyes, taking the measure of each other. The avenging deity is an interesting idea for the character, but there's no character in its execution to be found herein.

Which brings me to the most interesting twist on the film's basic premise; namely the natives turning back to their god. Once the Kuma realize Kroona is angry over their transgressions, they decide to attack the resort and everyone in it as recompense and atonement. It's a marvelous way to ratchet up the danger level, because now there are menaces on all sides. This is where my reference to Cannibal Holocaust comes in. If the" alligator god" angle was removed from the film entirely, this could have been an engaging and worthwhile siege/cannibal flick (never mind that the Kuma never show a predilection for anthropophagy). Between the natives' revenge and the vengeance of Kroona, the film hues closely to Freud's notion of "the return of the repressed." By turning away from their true nature, trying to tamp it down, and embracing Western culture, their past comes back to haunt them (and the white interlopers) in a huge way (pardon the pun).

The film's special effects are hit-and-miss. The first few times we glimpse Kroona, it's through a combination of quick closeup shots. The full-size creature is never seen at first, and the model work is of a high enough quality that it pulls off the illusion relatively well. Sadly, there is a plethora of miniature model work in the second half which not only destroys the suspension of disbelief but also the sense of scale and the very idea that Kroona is anything other than a rubber toy in a bathtub (which is exactly what it looks like in these shots). For a filmmaker as capable as Martino, that he would linger so on these shots tells me he was desperate to stretch the film's runtime out. 

With that in mind, this film's pacing is its biggest drawback, and it's enough for me to dislike the film on the whole. Scenes go on forever, dragging out conflicts that have petered out of their own momentum well before the movie moves on. Scenes seem to have been included simply to give the characters something to do for five minutes at a stretch. At the end of the film's first forty-four minutes, there has been only one, not-very-graphic Kroona attack. Granted, the third act is almost wall-to-wall carnage, but this too wears out its welcome after about ten minutes. It truly is a case of lather, rinse, and repeat. Perhaps if Martino and company had more story than film stock, The Big Alligator River wouldn't have turned out to be such a giant turkey.

MVT: The themes are the most intriguing aspects of the film. They just seem wasted on a project that feels like it's 100% filler, all additives.

Make Or Break: The "Break" is the first kill scene, which manages to go on interminably, crosscuts without building an iota of tension (or titillation, for that matter), and then (perhaps most egregiously) culminates in a staid attack.

Score: 5/10

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