The Great Alligator / Alligators / Big Alligator River / The Big Caimano River / Il Fiume del Grande Caimano (1979) **
If I had to describe The Great Alligator/Il Fiume del Grande Caimano/etc. in a single word, I think that single word would have to be “lazy.” This is a movie that repeatedly looks as though it’s about to get really good, but then blows it by cutting some important corner or other. And its laziness is not confined to one aspect of the production, either-- it’s pervasive. Lazy pacing. Lazy special effects. Lazy character development. Lazy recruitment of extras. Even the stock footage is lazy-- a good two thirds of it was lifted from director Sergio Martino’s previous film, The Mountain of the Cannibal God/La Montagna del Dio Cannibale! At first, I wasn’t sure about this. I mean, the world is full of winding tropical rivers, African crowned cranes, anacondas, and male orangutans, and they all look pretty much alike. But the world is not full of albino Indian cobras, and once you see one, you’re likely to remember it. So, yeah, of course I recognized the snake in question when it slithered across the screen in exactly the same way that it had in a movie I saw just a month or so ago.
So just what is up with all the stock footage? Well, this movie takes place out in the jungle (it was filmed in Sri Lanka), and as it opens, the helicopter carrying three of the four principal characters is flying over a tropical river valley toward the scene of all the action. One of those characters is a photographer named Daniel (Claudio Cassinelli, from Coed Murders and Screamers), and he spends much of the flight looking out the window at a lot of that stock footage. (He’ll photograph the rest of it after he lands.) Also riding in the chopper are Daniel’s friend Sheena (Geneve Hutton, who initially seems like she’s going to be a lot more important than she ends up being) and Joshua (Mel Ferrer, with whom the gods of Italian schlock were far from finished-- he went on to The Emerald Jungle and City of the Walking Dead soon thereafter), the owner of the helicopter’s destination. Joshua is a very rich man, and he has recently decided to sink some of his money into a theme park out in the jungle, which he has named Paradise House. Think Jurassic Park, but with monkeys and crocodiles instead of Velociraptors. (Joshua’s description of Paradise House makes a fine illustration of a point I have often made about B-movies: the better your education, the funnier these flicks become. Joshua tells Daniel and Sheena that the feature of the park that he is proudest of is that fact that he has been able to leave the surrounding ecosystem untouched, even as the screen fills with stock footage of exotic animals from no less than three different continents: crowned cranes and hippos from Africa, cobras and orangutans from Asia, and anacondas from South America.) When the chopper lands, Joshua introduces the fourth major character, Allie (Barbara Bach, from The Humanoid and The Unseen, who like so many leading ladies in movies like this had been a Bond girl once). Allie is an anthropologist-- or at any rate, she’s trained as one. Actually, the anthropological job market seems to be a bit slow just now, because Allie has been unable to get work in her field, and it is for that reason that she signed on to work at Paradise House-- at least it gets her out into the jungle. This is about the time that we are also introduced to the reason that Paradise House needs a trained anthropologist on staff. Most of the more menial tasks around the place, it turns out, are performed by members of a local stone-age tribe called the Kuma. The Kuma essentially built the place, and now they work as maintenance crew, wait staff, and entertainment, or they will once the park officially opens in a few days. The impending opening is the reason Joshua flew Daniel out to the park-- the photographer mainly works in advertising.
The next few minutes are taken up with a tour of the park, with the characters babbling incoherent dialogue that makes no sense except as foreshadowing of disasters to come-- lots of stuff about Paradise House being a trap and one or another of the female characters finding herself the bait. But soon enough, all the white people show up in tour buses and put a stop to all the bullshitting. Native dance after native dance after native dance follows, along with a great many shots of people swimming and taking barge rides down the river, the footage of these latter activities interspersed with underwater point-of-view shots of many species of aquatic grass. At last, we’re getting somewhere-- underwater POV cams can mean only one thing! Sure enough, before you know it, Sheena is taking a canoe ride to the Kuma “Island of Love” with a strapping young native boy, and not coming back. (See, I told you she wasn’t that important.)
Of course, Daniel and Allie notice the girl’s disappearance immediately; of course, they tell Joshua that they think she may have been hurt or even killed by a crocodile or something; and of course, Joshua is not interested. In true Jaws knock-off fashion, he is concerned only to the extent that Sheena’s vanishing act can negatively affect his tourist trade. If only he would take a hint from his Kuma employees, all of whom mysteriously fail to report in to work on the day after Sheena and her boyfriend had their little run-in with something big, toothy, and aquatic. Faced with Joshua’s short-sightedness, Daniel and Allie do the only logical thing, and go to the Kuma village to see what’s going on. (I can’t tell you how amazed I was to see someone in an Italian horror movie actually doing something sensible! I made my first foray into the world of Spaghetti Splatter when I was in junior high school, and I swear this is the first time I’ve seen logic put in an appearance!) The Kuma tell Allie (who speaks their language) that they have quit working for Joshua because the river-god Kruna doesn’t like them associating with whites. Apparently, this Kruna communicated his displeasure by eating Sheena and her companion. And that’s all the Kuma have to say on the matter; if Allie and Daniel want more, they’ll have to go see Father Jonathan, the only white man to have seen Kruna with his own eyes.
Allie and Daniel take the hint, and go looking for this Father Jonathan (who, when they find him, turns out to be played by Brit actor Richard Johnson, from Zombie and The Haunting, a has-been nearly as embarrassed as Mel Ferrer). And guess what... in order to reach Father Jonathan, Allie and Daniel have to climb up the same fucking waterfall that Stacey Keach falls off of in The Mountain of the Cannibal God! Well, at least now we know for certain where that movie was filmed, huh? Anyway, Father Jonathan is a missionary (duh), at least in theory. In practice, he’s just some reclusive loony who lives in a cave. You see, many years ago, he came to the jungle to proselytize, but the jungle ended up converting him instead. All eleven of his colleagues were killed and eaten in a single attack by a monster crocodilian, which the natives informed him was God in these here parts. You could say that Jonathan was impressed by the local deity’s display of power, so much so that he has spent the intervening years carving a life-sized effigy of the creature from a stone prominence in his cave.
That night, Kruna puts in an appearance at Paradise House. So, for that matter, do the Kuma, who have decided that the only way to appease their angry god is to kill as many white people as they possibly can and, just for good measure, to offer Allie as a special sacrifice. To anybody who came out of Lake Placid wishing more people had been eaten, allow me to recommend the next several scenes as an antidote. The body count in The Great Alligator’s climax is huge! I can’t remember the last time I saw one movie monster eat so many people! When you add to that the death-toll from the Kuma’s rampage, it’s a wonder anybody survives this movie at all.
But remember, I said this is a lazy movie, with a tendency to miss its cues and blow its chances, and this seems as good a time as any to talk about that laziness in some depth. Let’s begin with a minor point. I shall always remember The Great Alligator as the film that confirmed my suspicions that all people with darker skin than a Sicilian look the same to the Italians. The natives in this movie are a breathtakingly varied bunch, in which seemingly every population of black, brown, red, and yellow people on Earth is represented. Some of the extras are clearly of African stock; others are just as obviously Southeast Asian or Indonesian. Like I said, it’s a minor point, but to me, it stands out just as boldly as the hodge-podge of animals in the stock footage. Then, there’s the monster. Oh boy... where to begin? Notice that this movie is called The Great Alligator, as opposed to The Great Crocodile. This is not just bad translation on the part of whomever came up with the English-language title-- “caimano” means “alligator” in Italian. Now alligators don’t live in Sri Lanka, and the screenwriters (it took five of them to come up with this crap!) know this. At one point, Allie makes a point of saying that Kruna isn’t a crocodile, that he looks more like an alligator, despite the fact that “alligators are foreign to the Orient.” (Actually, there is a Chinese alligator, but its geographic range is tiny, and, well, limited to China.) What is amazing about this is not just the fact that the movie makes even less of an effort than Lake Placid to explain the presence of the inappropriate crocodilian. No, I’m far more interested in the fact that the Kruna model, despite all the fuss this movie makes about its alligator-ness, clearly depicts a crocodile!!!! Check out the shape of his snout; it’s triangular, like a croc’s rather than rounded and untapered like an alligator’s. Next, look at the teeth on the lower jaw (you’ll have lots of opportunities, believe me); note that the fourth tooth from the front is much longer than the others, and protrudes when the mouth is closed. Again, that’s a sure-fire crocodile recognition feature. What the hell is this about?!
But at least Kruna’s head is convincing as a crocodile’s head. His body is another story altogether. At a guess, I’d say the special effects department spent all their money on the admittedly really good head of their monster, without giving any thought to the fact that several shots called for its entire body to be visible. Kruna’s body may not be Giant Claw bad, but it is every bit as bad as the yeti from Shriek of the Mutilated. I particularly like the fact that his legs don’t move, and are permanently locked in a position appropriate for standing on dry land (never once does the thing come out of the water), but the untapering, perfectly cylindrical tail, with its Ankylosaurus-like club at the end is pretty good too.
Then there’s the laziness with which the story is treated, which is what hurts The Great Alligator the most. There are several occasions on which the film threatens to go off in a direction that would have added immensely to its entertainment value before stopping in its tracks, giving up, and moving on to the next scene. The two that spring to mind immediately (because, had the filmmakers decided to keep going down these paths, The Great Alligator would have united no less than three great genres of Italian exploitation movies in one ecstatic film) are the scene in which Daniel shoots lots of photos of Sheena, and the Kuma’s later attack on the park. In the former scene, the movie looks like it’s going to take a time-out to go head-to-head with Black Emanuelle (but this time with a real black girl). In the latter, The Great Alligator seems to consider taking on the cannibal gut-munchers on their home turf. A softcore-porno-cannibal-Jaws-ripoff... imagine the possibilities!!!! But it is not to be, and The Great Alligator joins instead the great legion of movies that are content to hint at what they could have been, had their creators been just a little bolder, just a little more self-assured.