The double feature is cinema appreciation at its most basic. The mere act of pairing two films together – whether the bond be subject matter, central theme, a certain actor or filmmaker, or something outside-the-box conceptual – causes them to take on a different sort of life. A new relationship is formed with the viewer. You pay attention to new aspects and journey down unfamiliar avenues when you view films through Double Feature Goggles. Even when the linking bond is comically tenuous, the double feature magic is there. And I’m the kind of guy who derives just as much pleasure from creating a double feature as I do from watching one. Aside from amusing myself, hopefully I can give some people ideas for their next movie night.
The Double Feature: Alligator (1980) and Q (1982).
The Connection: Two giant reptiles, suddenly plaguing a large metropolis. Two cops trying to convince their departments that said giant reptile is real. Two great method performances oddly existing in a b-grade creature feature.
This is a reader inspired entry. Chewer Oirectine requested a crocodile double feature, but it morphed into this; the simplest explanation for why is that no two crocodile movies really offered the kind of interesting correlation that makes this column fun. Also, in any of the pairings that made sense, I felt I was going to be talking about at least one film that I didn’t actually like or think was very good (if not both films), purely for the sake of comparing two croc flicks. But in thinking about Alligator – which I was interested in examining – I was led down this path. Giant reptiles in the big city!
Film 1: Poor Lewis Teague. These days a lot of people seem to erroneously remember John Sayles directing Alligator. Sayles wrote the film (part of his horror movie hat-trick, along with Piranha and The Howling). Teague directed it. Alligator was the beginning of Teague’s own brief horror hot streak, following this film with two Stephen King adaptations, Cujo and Cat’s Eye.
Alligator begins with a young girl acquiring a baby alligator as a pet. While away at school, her father cruelly flushes the lil’ guy down the toilet. Fulfilling the old urban legend, the lil’ guy eventually grows to monstrous proportions in the sewers of Chicago; though here there is reasonable explanation. A shady pet store owner (the wonderful Sydney Lassick) has been selling dogs to a pharmaceutical corporation as test subjects. Pumped full of weird growth hormones, the dogs’ corpses are then dumped into the sewer, where unbeknownst to anyone a certain reptile winds up devouring them. When stray human body parts start showing up at the sewage treatment plant, police detective David Madison (Robert Forster) gets involved. When he discovers the alligator, at first everyone thinks he’s crazy. But soon there is no denying it. That’s when Marisa (Robin Riker), the little girl who originally owned the alligator as a pet, now all grown up and working as a reptile specialist, enters the scene. When the alligator is finally driven out of the sewer, all hell breaks loose.
Alligator is one of those secretly great horror films from the 70’s/early-80’s, kept down by its innately B-grade concept and corny special FX, but featuring a killer script and surprisingly classy cast. The reason people seem to unfairly forget Lewis Teague is that the most conspicuously top tier aspect of the film is John Sayles’ script. Like Piranha, this film once again finds Sayles doing a tongue-in-cheek riff on Jaws. But Sayles’ calm knack for naturalistic dialogue and subversive satire often makes you forget you’re watching a goof about a colossal eating machine. With this film it is impossible to tell if Sayles was truly trying to craft a brilliant killer alligator movie, or if he was simply too talented to half-ass anything.
But Sayles’ naturalistic dialogue would have been sadly trodden over without a suitable cast. Not only does Alligator feature Oscar-nominated Michael V. Gazzo (Godfather Part II) as the police chief, and Oscar-winning Dean Jagger (Twelve O’Clock High) as the villainous CEO of the pharmaceutical corporation, but you’ve also got Henry Silva utterly destroying as Sayles’ version of the shark-hunting Quint — here a sexist/racist big game hunter brought in to track the alligator (his most audacious scene finds him hiring some black teens and explaining to them that they will be his “native” guides). At the center of it all you have Robert Forster. Forster is perfect in the film, with his special combination of goonish charm and world-weary delivery. Watching him here it is kind of amazing that he slipped off the map until Tarantino rescued him with Jackie Brown. Not only is he delightful in the role, but he also talked Sayles into adding jokes about his receding hairline. Not a lot of leading men want to admit they’re balding on screen, much less have it added to their films.
Of course, the big star of the show is the titular beastie. Much like on Jaws, Teague was handed a mechanical alligator that rarely performed correctly. So most of the film is executed with POV, close-ups, and angles perched right behind the alligator’s head as it lumbers forward. These all work swimmingly. Less effective (though extremely funny) are the shots of a real alligator waddling through down-scaled sets. Where everything in Piranha felt like a wacka wacka joke from Sayles and director Joe Dante, Alligator actually has a few straight-faced horror scenes. The sequence where Forster and his rookie partner first discover the alligator is particularly well-done, with some fun fake-outs and a big tense climax. Things kick into high gear once the alligator leaves the sewers, and Sayles and Teague show off a great rhythm between brutal and bonkers moments. Sayles continues to demonstrate his love of killing off children (in one of the film’s most terrifying moments; if you saw this film on TV as a kid, like I did).
Film 2: Q, alternately known by the more descriptive title, Q: The Winged Serpent, may be schlockmeister Larry Cohen’s masterpiece; it’s at least his most quintessential film. Cohen’s best horror movies all feel like tricks, like a whole different kind of movie hiding under the sheep’s clothing of an easily sellable genre flick. None more so than Q.
As far as creature feature concepts go, they don’t come much more harebrained than Q – which concerns the ancient Aztec bird-lizard god, Quetzalcoatl, suddenly appearing in New York, plucking sunbathers off of rooftops and living at the top of the Chrysler Building, all without being noticed by more than a random person here and there. When corpses (or rather parts of them) start showing up, Det. Shepard (David Carradine) is put on the case. But the real movie here, is the story of our witless and desperate anti-hero, Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty). While Quinn is fleeing, injured, from a jewelry story robbery he has been roped into by some mobster acquaintances, Jimmy winds up hiding in the cone of the Chrysler Building, where he finds a skeleton and a giant egg. When he’s busted for the jewelry store job, he decides to use his knowledge of the “giant bird” – that has by now made the news – as leverage to blackmail New York into giving him an acquittal and $1 million.
Q is all over the place conceptually, but that’s what makes it interesting. The dichotomy between the realism of Quinn’s storyline, and the utter nonsense that is the Quetzalcoatl storyline (complete with a secret cabal of Quetzalcoatl worshipers) is fascinating. If I pitched you the idea for Q, and then I said, “But this will really be an acting showcase.” You’d think I was an idiot. But that’s what Cohen achieved. Unfortunately, the great acting is not across the board. Candy Clark, who plays Quinn’s long-suffering girlfriend, is pretty terrible and shrill in the film. And David Carradine is really phoning it in, which is somewhat expected for a film about a giant flying lizard monster, but ends making him look like an asshole when you see Moriarty or Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree taking things seriously.
Enough cannot be said about Moriarty’s performance in this film, which is nothing short of a revelation. It is probably the highlight of Moriarty’s film career, and was deserving of some kind of awards attention. He’s so believably pathetic and stupid, it is a treat to watch him scheme his way through the movie. It’s rare to see a character we sympathize with be so aggressively unlikable in a realistic way. An early scene where Quinn is auditioning to play piano at the bar where his girlfriend works (which has Moriarty showing off some impressive jazz piano skills), has a great character establishing exchange. Det. Shepard is coincidentally drinking at the bar. After Quinn is rudely shot down by the bar’s owner, Shepard tells Quinn as he passes, “Sounded okay to me.” To which Quinn replies like, “Yeah, what the fuck do you know?” On paper the character would be wholly hatable (we learn he hits Candy Clark when he gets drunk), but it is Moriarty’s performance that entrances you, and you will be surprised by how much you want him to succeed and become disappointed when he fails. Forget any of the monster kills, the scene in which Quinn cockily blackmails the New York city officials with his demands is the high light of the film.
The winged serpent itself is pretty comically terrible, but there are a few great classic monster moments, like its death scene clinging to the top of a skyscraper. My favorite scene relating to Q, is the moment when the city officially becomes aware of the beast. After plucking yet another human from a rooftop, blood starts dripping from the sky on the passersby on the street below, with everyone looking up aghast and disgusted. It is exactly the kind of scene a movie about a flying monster in New York needs.
Double Feature Goggles: What drew me to these films was the big city setting, and how the creatures interacted with it. Generally if a monster is attacking a major metropolitan area, it is done Godzilla style, like Cloverfield. Even The Host boldly opens with a broad attack. It takes a certain sort of silly balls to have a giant reptile lurking undetected in New York or Chicago, picking people off individually like a Slasher. That’s why most killer animal movies take place in a remote location, or involve the ocean. I also liked that these two films covered opposite ends of the city spectrum: the alligator comes from below, while Q comes from above. Following this contrast, the films also begin with yin and yang corpses. Forster finds a leg, missing a body, washed up from the sewer. Carradine finds a body, missing a head, dangling dozens of stories in the air on a window washing harness.
Though both films feature a portion where no one believes our detective, but like in Jaws, the creatures become public knowledge midway through the film. It is always fun to see SWAT teams, etc, assembling to fight a creature. And typical of low-budget films of the period (when city street permitting worked differently), there is a lot of great outdoor sequences. Neither of these films could be made now, with the proportional budgets they had, and wind up feeling as big as they do. Nowadays these films would be kept to back alleys, night shoots, and lame stock footage of parks and traffic. How Larry Cohen gained so much access to the actual Chrysler Building beats me, but it is part of what makes a Cohen movie feel the way it does – a strange sort of authenticity to his urban settings.
Both films also end in spectacularly bloody deathfests.