Thursday, August 7, 2014

Happy Birthday Ike! I Got You The Alligator People!

Long time readers know my abiding love for Mike and Ike, the perpetually stoned and improbably smart culture critics who supply some of the world's most entertaining rants about movies and TV.  Their Twitter feed is a heady mixture of spleen and ejaculate (@itsmikeandike), their videos are funny and inexplicably informative, and their podcast, the All Star Summer Jamboree (or ASSJAM) is my second favorite thing that can go in the human ear, right behind that armadillo-looking larva Ricardo Montalban drops down Walter Koenig's eustachian tube in Wrath of Khan.

Anyway, today is Ike's birthday, and after looking around for an appropriate gift, I decided on The Alligator People, since it contains a particularly ripe and repellant performance by Lon Chaney, Jr., whom the boys riffed so memorably in their commentary track to Spider Baby (see Mike and Ike's Grindhouse, Vol. 1).

The Alligator People (1959)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay by Orville H. Hampton, Story by Orville H. Hampton and Charles O’Neal

A psychiatrist who looks like Mr. Dithers from Blondie arrives at a Sanitarium, where he meets with the Amazing Transparent Man (here playing the Ordinarily Opaque Doctor). Dithers has been called in to consult, because Dr. Transparent is “having trouble with a young girl,” one of his patients. Dr. Dithers smiles a weird, mustache-warping grin and says, “Is she…pretty?” I don’t know. Are you…creepy?  Ha, ha, just kidding. Now let’s go paw her through her flimsy paper gown.

The patient, Beverly Garland, is actually Dr. Transparent’s nurse, except he’s been giving her roofies and secretly psychoanalyzing her behind her back. (I know we’re only two minutes in, and I hate to jump the gun, but I’m really beginning to wonder if this is the best date movie I could have chosen.).  He makes Bev lie down on a couch beside his huge reel-to-reel tape deck (presumably cued up with bachelor pad-quality cocktail jazz), then prepares to shoot her up while Dr. Dithers leans way over and tries to score a peek down her smock. Dr. Transparent holds the syringe up and murmurs to Beverly, “A nice sharp one for you, this time.” I can only assume he administered her previous injections with a heroin-dispensing Bizzy Buzz Buzz.

Beverly goes into a trance, and the two psychiatrists – Dr. Feelgood and Dr. Feelup) perform hypnotic regression therapy on her (little trivia: in 1965 The Alligator People was adapted into the Lerner and Lane musical, On a Clear Day you Can See Forever).

Beverly confesses that she’s secretly married to Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Flashback to their wedding night: we meet the newlyweds on a moving train (you know what that means) as a porter pops a champagne cork (you know what that means! Jeez, Rocky, try double-bagging it, or maybe get one of those topical anesthetics they sell out of the back of Hustler).

Now that they’re married, Rocky has a confession to make about why he’s still alive even though his body was previously destroyed in a plane crash. Alas, his story is interrupted by a bunch of telegrams. Bev gets a dirty message from her fellow nurses, while Rocky receives a singing telegram; it’s from the soundtrack, and while there aren’t any lyrics, the ominous trilling doesn’t seem to be saying, “Happy birthday.” Rocky abruptly leaps off the train, leaving his wife bereft on their wedding night. Fortunately, her girlfriends did just wire her some porn, so…

Bev eventually tracks Rocky to his hometown in bayou country. She gets off the train, finding the station deserted except for a wooden crate covered in stickers that read, “CAUTION RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL” and “COBALT 60” and does what anyone would in her place; she sits on the box of isotopes and bathes her cooter in gamma rays. I’m hoping this will pay off later in the movie when, angered by Dr. Dithers’ sexism, her vulva becomes huge, green, and indestructible.

Lon Chaney, Jr. shows up sporting a straw hat, hook hand, and cirrhosis of the liver. One of the few local Cajuns who doesn’t have a cooking show, he makes his living hauling nuclear waste to The Cypresses, which by an amazing transparent coincidence is the very plantation where Rocky used to live.

Lon and Beverly drive through some scenic Spanish moss, but stop so Bev can be vaguely nauseated by the sight of Steve Irwin dry-humping an alligator. Lon delivers a litany of the many ways she could die in the swamp – quicksand, water moccasins, foreshadowing – before building to a spittle-flecked rage about the “nasty, slimy gators!” He’s a fun tour guide, kind of like those guys who operate the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, except maimed and screaming.

Beverly arrives at The Cypresses, which comes equipped with black servants and a sinister widow, Mrs. Hawthorne, who claims to know nothing about Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, insisting she’s more of a Tom Corbett, Space Cadet fan, although she’ll watch Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers if nothing else is on. 

Bev spends the night in the creepy mansion, per monster movie law, when suddenly there’s a hail of gunshots just outside her window. She runs to investigate, but the bedroom door won’t open! They’ve locked her in, and for the first time, we really begin to worry if there’s a bathroom.

The maid comes to Beverly’s room to deliver dinner on a tray and exposition on a silver platter. It seems the house has “trouble,” Widow Hawthorne has “sorrow” and the swamp has “evil.”  Or maybe Mrs. Hawthorne has “evil” and the swamp has “sorrow.” Or possibly it’s like a key party, and they just get drunk and randomly swap nouns.

Widow Hawthorne calls George Macready, who does what he usually does in movies: stands around in a lab coat. In this case he has an alligator stretched out on a slab and elaborately bound with leather straps, making it look like we’ve interrupted an autopsy at The Pleasure Chest.

Meanwhile, Beverly hears music and sneaks downstairs, where she finds a man in a trench coat and a Don Post monster mask playing the piano. He sees her and runs away, leaving Bev to touch the instrument and muse, “The piano keys…still wet…from his fingers.” So presumably he was playing Beethoven’s An die Freude, or Ode to Joy of Sex.

Beverly gives Mrs. Hawthorne the third degree, and the old woman admits to being Rocky’s mother.  Bev gasps, “His mother…?” and we immediately fade out like it’s a soap opera. The effect is so perfect I'm disappointed they didn’t add an organ sting and a Duz detergent commercial.

Rocky sneaks into the house to leave his sticky emissions on the piano again, and comes face to face with Beverly. He runs out into the rainy night and she chases him through the swamp in her bare feet, the tight bodice of her dress getting all wet and clingy and sheer and how this film didn’t win an Oscar for Best Picture I’ll never know.

Lon hears the unmistakable sound of moist, muddy girl and emerges from his shack. Meanwhile, Bev stumbles toward an alligator, which is clearly supposed to react and startle her, but it just lays there.  So Beverly – and you can all but hear the director off-camera yelling, “Kick it! Kick it!” – nudges the gator with her bare foot, and it obligingly thrashes around a bit. Its jaws are clearly wired shut, but still…if the dictionary definition of “trouper” doesn’t read “See Garland, Beverly,” me and the OED are gonna throw down.

Lon rescues Beverly from a snake and takes her back to his shack, where he offers her traditional southern hospitality by suggesting she drink moonshine and “take off them wet things.” When she demurs, he cuts straight to the sexual assault by wrapping her in a blanket and trying to kiss the back of her head while crowing, “Didn’t I save your life? Don’t you feel like you owe me sumthin’?”  Yes, noted Men’s Rights activist, Lon Chaney, Jr.

Bev screams and he knocks her cold. Just then Rocky bursts into the cabin and gets in a violent fistfight with a stunt man while Lon has a beer in the catering tent, because he’s ogled, manhandled, and coldcocked his co-star; now comes Miller Time.

Rocky carries Beverly back to the plantation, then goes to the lab and demands that Dr.  Macready hit him with a massive dose of gamma radiation from the Cobolt 60, since it’s his only hope of returning to human form. And since his make-up looks remarkably like the Jack Kirby Hulk, there’s at least a slim chance he’ll transform into Bill Bixby.

Macready tells Bev how he planned to give human beings the reptilian power of regeneration by shooting them up with alligator juice.  "I injected this substance into the veins of volunteers.  Horribly injured, hopelessly mangled accident victims on the point of death.” Fortunately, they all had time to listen to his presentation and sign the consent forms.

Bev and Rocky are reunited at the lab, and being a good 1950s helpmate, she completely supports his decision to get his scaly ass fatally irradiated. Nothing can possibly go wrong, unless a drunken, hooked-handed sex offender bursts into the lab at exactly the wrong moment and excess radiation causes Rocky to abruptly develop into a bipedal reptile, complete with paper-mache alligator head. But what are the odds of that?

Lon somehow electrocutes himself, then blows up the lab, Rocky's mom, and Dr. Macready. Bev and Rocky-Gator survive, but he runs off into the swamp for some reason; perhaps he’s embarrassed by his crappy costume, perhaps he’s late for his mascot tryout with the University of Florida. Bev chases after him, arriving just in time to see him drown in quicksand.

Cut back to the Amazing Transparent Doctor’s office, where he and Dithers study the recording of Bev’s session, then play it backwards to see if Paul is really dead.  They conclude that Beverly has totally suppressed the memory of this horrifying and traumatic experience, and the two psychiatrists debate whether they should play the tape for her, possibly bringing on a complete psychotic break. They decide it would be unethical, but probably pretty funny.

The end.

But wait!  What about you, the viewer at home? What would you do?

Happy birthday, Ike.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Manon the molester
versus Rocky the Gator

Chris Vosburg said...

Happy Birthday, Ike!

Thanks for the riffin' Scott, on The Alligator People, one of my favorites. TAP shows up on the FX movie channel from time to time (yep, there it is again, tomorrow morning at 10:40a), usually double-featured along with The Day Mars Invaded Earth, which seems to comprise the entirety of FX'x 50s sci-fi b-movie catalog for some reason.

Man, Lon Chaney Jr really goes for the gusto as crazed gator-hater Manon! I laughed every time he was on screen, running over unsuspecting gators in his truck, and then backing over them for good measure, all while shouting "ah hates gators!" at the top of his lungs, or banging away at them with a revolver, while laughing uproariously.

On the other hand, poor Bruce Bennett (Dr Lorimer). 1959 was not a good year for him (he also did The Cosmic Man that year, with a dissipated John Carradine).

Hard to believe it's the same guy that was in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Mildred Pierce, Dark Passage, and other classics.

Sheri said...

Happy birthday, Ike. I hope it's a good one. And Scott must think you're special, because he usually just gives a photo of a reptile for birthdays - but you got a whole heap of reptiles, plus a scantily-clad damsel.

And nice work, Scott! This is one of the movies I saw as a kid, and later thought it must have all been my imagination, because movies aren't this weird. So, you've given me back my confidence in my memories. So, I say they should make Beverly remember her experiences through laughter therapy.

Unknown said...

Many happy returns, Ike.
As for you, Scott, what would I do with a dead spaceman/alligator?
Well, with apologies to PETA, I'm thinking shoes, belts, briefcase, wallets, handbag ...

Weird Dave said...

At least this one sound like it's in the so bad it's good category.

Happy Birthday Ike, wherever you are.

Anonymous said...

ANNTI said...

Ditto on the many happy returns, Ike. This one is priceless.

Bless his heart, Lon Jr. usually DID land the worst roles possible, and made 'em delightfully horrid and then some. He was even in an episode of "The Monkees," one of his few "good guy" roles back then... That deep, creepy laugh, the grunting & lumbering, lurching chase scenes... what was that horrible '60s "let's kill a buncha hippies!" pseudo-psychedelic flick you covered a while back, Scott? Lon was delightfully fucktarded in THAT one...

Gator People... prequel to "True Blood"??? Probably had better writing and WAY better "acting" than HBO's eternal insult to Louisiana.

Also, funniest use of "cooter" that I've seen in a long, long time, Scott. Extra star on yer forehead for that one!

---Yer Ranty Aunty Annti

grouchomarxist said...

Happy Birthday, Ike! From the guy who's perennially late to the party, although this time I have sort of an excuse.

The Alligator People is one of those flicks which will forever be associated in my memory with Saturday afternoons when I was a kid, trapped inside by the lousy weather, and the tv choices were either the Creature Feature or a bowling tournament. You could do a great theme night with this one, followed by The Hideous Sun Demon.

The amazing thing is, Rocky-Gator gave a much more nuanced interpretation of the role than regular Rocky.