Though it’s clear to you and I as soon he reads the telegram and that “holy crap, my doctor says that experimental treatment he gave me to help me recover from that horrific plane crash is going to slowly turn me into a human alligator” look comes over his face as to why he has to leave, for some reason Joyce Webster can’t puzzle any of it out.
Even with her being blind to the obvious, the movie might have been enjoyably stupid if it hadn’t been so bland. I still think back to a grubby Lon Chaney playing a drunken Cajun with a hook for a hand and a hatred for gators and wonder how it wasn’t any better than it was.
The story here is pretty much the standard one involving a man’s struggle with his inner-reptile and the impact it has on his relationship with his wife.
Joyce is a nurse who is helping out a doctor with an experiment on narcohypnosis or whatever it is that requires her to lie down on his couch and get shot up with some giggle juice that opens all her repressed secrets to him.
Under this drugged hypnosis she relates a story wherein she’s got a different name, is married to a guy, and is searching for him after he goes missing. Her search eventually leads to some out of the way plantation in bayou country where she begins to unravel the mysteries surrounding her husband’s Paul’s disappearance.
When she’s let off at the train station at the nearest town, the only other thing there on the platform is a crate that’s marked “cobalt 60” and has a radioactive symbol stamped all over it.
Not knowing what else to do, Joyce demonstrates some of that same keen mental prowess that possessed her to marry a guy she knew nothing about (you were in a plane crash that completely destroyed every part of your body, but you’re all better now? That’s super! Let’s get married!) and she takes a load off and sits on the crate! Gawd woman! That’s cobalt 60! Do you want Paul to be kept awake all night because your little caboose is glowing in the dark?
Luckily before she gets really bored and cracks that crate open to see what’s inside, Manon (Lon Chaney) shows up to haul it back to the same plantation that she needs a ride to. During the ride back we establish that Manon hates gators because he tries to run one over and because he says he hates gators. And also because they bit off his hand forcing him to wear a hook!
At the plantation, she meets a mean old broad who says she doesn’t know anything about any old Paul Webster and that Joyce can spend the night until the train comes in the morning, but she can’t leave her room under any circumstances.
Later Joyce of course leaves her room and wanders downstairs to see someone playing the piano in the dark. He runs away before she can see who it is, but notes that he left muddy footprints (“it’s not even raining” she thinks out loud) and the piano keys are still wet. And the room smells like gator farts.
Could this have some connection to Paul? And what was that cobalt bomb for? And why is Manon trying to rape me in his dingy shack after I chased the piano man through the swamp? And who is this that’s saving me from Manon’s clutches with his gator kung fu?
It isn’t long after this that the mean old woman reveals who she really is and arranges for the local mad doctor to tell Joyce everything. Turns out the doc isn’t really mad at all and he does tell her everything!
He’s just a guy who got suckered into that whole “since certain reptiles can grow their tails back, why don’t I mess around with their pituitary gland and inject some of this gunk into folks who are all busted up” trap. This never works and invariably results in guys turning into big lizards. The cobalt bomb is Paul’s only hope to reverse his turning into a gator.
To the movie’s credit, it did try to get away from several of the standard cliches of the man-gator genre, but it turns out they chucked everything that could have made the movie exciting. Chief among the problems is the absence of a true menace.
The doctor is just a guy trying to help people and even tells Paul he’s sorry about screwing him and that maybe he shouldn’t have played God, but Paul just shrugs it off telling him to forget it. Paul never turns into a threat to anyone, even after his final transformation. He just wrestles some gators and falls into some quicksand.
That leaves Manon as your big threat, but he doesn’t do anything beyond messing up the experiment and he didn’t have a clue what he was doing when he did that.
Where’s the drama supposed to come from? We know from the beginning that no good comes to Paul since Joyce is telling the story in flashback and then only under hypnosis.
The central idea of the film seems a tad arbitrary, too. If you’re messing around with regeneration and reptiles, why would you use a gator? I’ve never heard of them growing anything back.
The highlight is of course when we get to see our boy charging around the swamp with the head of an alligator while still dressed in a nice pair of slacks, but as great as it is, we have to wait until four minutes from the end of the movie to finally see it.
I’m tempted to say that the movie was a missed opportunity, but does anyone really believe that a movie about a guy with an alligator head was an opportunity for anything?
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