Note: a follow-up to this post, here is another entry from my Lon Chaney Jr filmog/biog book, Moonlight Shadows, which I’ve worked on occasionally since 2009, and which frankly I shall probably never finish (although I do have 70,000+ words done on it). Anyhow–enjoy! Would you like to see more of these? Let me know.
Produced by Jack Leewood for Associated Producers, Inc. Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Screenplay by Orville H Hampton (story by Hampton & Charles O’Neal). Music score by Irving Gertz. Cinematography by Karl Struss. Makeup by Ben Nye & Dick Smith. Special effects by Fred Etcheverry. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
Technical: 2.35:1, black and white, RCA mono. Running time: 74 minutes. Production: April 13 to late April 1959. Release: July 16 1959 (US).
With Beverly Garland, Bruce Bennett, Lon Chaney, George Macready, Frieda Inescort, Richard Crane and Douglas Kennedy.
Using hypnosis, Dr Lorimer (Bruce Bennett) discovers his nurse, Jane Marvin (Beverly Garland), has a troubled past repressed with amnesia. It’s revealed that long ago, her new husband, Paul (Richard Crane), disappeared on their wedding night after receiving a mysterious telegram. He had just told her he’d earlier sustained severe injuries in an accident, from which he seemed to have recovered miraculously. She devotes her time to tracking him down, which leads her to a large estate in the swamplands of the deep South. It turns out he received experimental treatments from Dr Sinclair (George Macready), using extracts from alligators in an attempt to harness reptilian healing powers. This resulted in long-term side-effects.
Lon’s final American horror role of the ’50s came with The Alligator People. Following the success of a certain other cross-species mutation story, The Fly (1958), it was conceived as the B-feature for a double-bill with Fly‘s imaginatively-titled sequel, Return of the Fly. Both were Associated Producers films, in association with & distributed by Fox.
The Alligator People was filmed at 20th Century Fox Studios in the spring of ’59. Exteriors started shooting on April 20 on the Fox backlot. The same mansion seen in Return of the Fly also appears here—how many people watching the double-bill noticed?
Director Roy Del Ruth’s career went back more than 40 years, and he was near the end of it (and his life; he died in 1961). The first ever “talkie” horror movie, Warner Bros’ The Terror (1928), was directed by Del Ruth; in horror, he also directed the 3-D Poe adaptation Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), which starred Karl Malden, Patricia Medina and Steve Forrest (as Dupin).
The original story was co-written by Charles O’Neal. His modest output as a writer in films includes two other genre items—the Val Lewton production of The Seventh Victim (1943) and Columbia’s Cry of the Werewolf (1944). He is the father of fellow screenwriter Kevin O’Neal and some little-known actor fellow named Ryan.
The Alligator People is, on the whole, a well-made, well-acted and well-scripted example of its type. Beverly Garland gives a terrific lead performance, following the late ’50s trend for female protagonists as seen in (of course) The Fly as well as The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958), and others. She’s a strong and determined character, while also being likeable and sympathetic. Garland had already appeared in Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957)—her place in genre history was assured. Much of her work was in TV, which included an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone in 1960 (“The Four of Us Are Dying”—scripted by Rod Serling himself).
The midway transformation makeup given to Richard Crane (playing Paul, Bev’s lost-and-found hubby) is excellent—and it’s beautifully photographed, too. The movie’s overall quality is enhanced very much by the cinematography of the great Karl Struss, whose other genre credits include Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and, of course, the above-mentioned The Fly. Shot in black and white, the theme is dark and atmospheric; it all looks very plausible in spite there being no location shooting. According to art director John Mansbridge (via Tom Weaver), there was, conveniently, a swamp on the Fox backlot! This was the penultimate film for Struss, but his retirement was a long one—he died aged 95, in 1981.
Chaney plays Mannon, the estate’s dirty, drunken hired hand, and is superb. Mannon is often nicknamed the Ragin’ Cajun by fans. He has a hook where his left hand used to be, which, we soon discover, was bitten-off by an alligator seeking lunch, at some indeterminate point in the past. His enduring hatred of alligators is such that his idea of a fun night is going out into the swamps and taking pot-shots at them.
In an early draft script, the character is named Pierre Manon, an ‘unsavoury Cajun’: “Vicious, unshaven, with the bleary eyes and swollen nose of the habitual alcoholic,” says the script. He is described as missing his left hand fingers and part of his left palm; he hides his hand behind him or wears a glove. The film’s hook is a marked improvement.
Lon has the film’s most oft-quoted line—chasing after the half-mutated Paul, he yells: “I’ll kill you, Alligator Man! Just like I’d kill any four-legged ‘gator!”
He particularly excels (and repels) in the scene where he offers Bev shelter from a raging storm in his filthy little shack. After glugging on a large jug of hooch (and letting out a convincing enough lip-smack to make you wonder if real booze was contained in the vessel), an attempted rape follows. Lon nails the sleaze and creepiness of the character perfectly, with much scenery-chewing—tempered with exactly the right amount of tragedy. Hateful, but still pitiful.
Garland had nothing but praise for Lon. “I thought Lon Chaney was fabulous, fun and easy,” she told Tom Weaver (Interviews With B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers…, 1988). “It was fascinating to hear him talk about his dad and all the things he remembered about his father’s career. He was a favorite person of mine… I just adored him and thought he was great.”
A less gushing memory of Lon came from producer Jack Leewood, as told to Roy Woodbine in Filmfax #120 (2009): “I remember walking on the set one day and observing an inebriated LC giving [Roy Del Ruth] a bad time. I over-reacted in Roy’s defense and lost my cool, yelling my displeasure at Lon in front of the whole cast and crew. Chaney apologized to Roy, then took me aside to tell me off. He admitted fault, but said my reaction had been unprofessional, that my authority should have been justified in private, not in front of the crew. It was a bitter experience, and a valuable lesson in producing. Chaney was actually a nice guy with an easy personality, but it was his drinking that got in the way of his work. Actors are different animals—very sensitive, in ways. They are artists.”
The Alligator People only really comes unstuck in the last ten minutes. A violently drunken Mannon bursts into Sinclair’s lab during a crucial attempt to cure Paul’s mutation, trashing the whole place (note: when Mannon inevitably dies, he pulses with electricity in a manner reminiscent of Man Made Monster!)—thus causing Paul’s condition to accelerate to its final stage. The final stage is, regrettably, a man with a large, very fake-looking alligator head. Given the effective production quality of the film up to this point, it’s unfortunate such a cheap-looking effect would spoil the climax.
The aforementioned early script differs on a few points regarding the ending: Manon uses a bomb to blow up the lab; a herd of escaped alligators menace him; Alligator Man/Paul finally goes after him and drags him into the swamp, where he is devoured by the ‘gators.
Regardless of the weak climactic effects, it’s a highly enjoyable film with a lot of ardent fans to this day. As to Lon—he steals it every time he’s on screen, and for once even the press of the day seemed to agree on this.
It may be worth noting that this movie had some influence of its own. The theme of a doctor in the swamplands experimenting with reptile extracts as a means of improving the healing process in humans, leading to predictable mutation, almost certainly inspired Stan Lee and Steve’s Ditko’s early Spider-Man villain, the Lizard, who first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #6 (November 1963).
The Alligator People even generated a minor controversy, at least in the UK. On November 6 1959, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story to the effect that the British government had taken action against the promotional materials Fox had created for the Return of the Fly/Alligator People double-bill! Harold Macmillan’s blessed guardians of virtue and morals insisted they be withdrawn immediately on the grounds of being ‘too horrific’.
Harrison’s Reports, July 18 1959:
It is an ordinary picture offering little that is original in theme or content. But it has several moments of excruciating horror and should amply satisfy the appetites of those fans who prefer bloodthirsty entertainment. Film lacks a strong ending that would pay off on the horror element, but otherwise the pace is crisp and the action well-placed throughout. Lon Chaney Jr is the standout actor in the cast contributing some marrow-icing moments as a half crazed bayou character who hates alligators.
Film Bulletin, July 20 1959:
This horror quickie … achieves some fine moments of terror that will delight the devotees of such fare. The cast consists of Beverly Garland, Richard Crane and Lon Chaney Jr, with the latter turning in a strong performance as a loco bayou denizen.