Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Alligator People (1959)

The Alligator People (1959). Directed by: Roy Del Ruth. Starring: Beverly Garland, Lon Chaney Jr., George Macready.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. For tonight’s film, we’ll be taking a trip to the swamp for a classic creature feature from the prolific pen of Orville H. Hampton, who also scribed previous Vault of Secrets installments The Atomic Submarine and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, all in the same year.

If you’re anything like me, you principally know The Alligator People from innumerable photos of the titular monster that appeared in old monster movie books and magazines. If that’s the case, I’ll tell you right now it looks even more like a Halloween costume in the movie than it ever did in those books. Just a heads-up.

Surprisingly, though, the movie itself is pretty sharp and the rest of the makeup effects – by the now sadly and only recently departed Dick Smith – are really solid. The version I watched had nice, crisp shadows and a good picture, and it’s also available in a four-pack with The Fly and a couple of other movies that you might be seeing here at the Vault of Secrets sooner rather than later.

Starting with an unusual – and ultimately kind of pointless – framing device, the movie spends a lot of time setting up the mystery of what has happened to our leading lady’s new husband. Of course we know he’s now an alligator man (who talks kind of like the main alien in Men in Black), in an origin story with noted similarities to the Spiderman villain, The Lizard. Lon Chaney Jr. shows up as a grizzled (and, unfortunately, kind of rape-y) handyman with a hook for a hand, whose hatred of alligators ultimately kicks off the film’s tragic climax. (“Ah’ll kill yuh, alligator mahn!”) And there’s a scene with our heroine stumbling through the swamp in the rain, tripping over gators, that’s surprisingly effective.

The direction is provided by veteran helmer Roy Del Ruth, better known for screwball comedies and musicals from the 30s and 40s. He also directed a 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, featuring none other than Renfield himself, Dwight Frye! It all adds up to something a little better than it ought to be, though not quite as good as we all imagined when we saw a guy with an alligator head carrying a woman around in those glorious black-and-white photos in the monster books.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time for a special treat just in time for Halloween!