The Alligator People is more than just a raving 50’s B classic from director Roy Del Ruth featuring some classic man-monster action. It’s also a must see for fans of the classic horror legend Lon Chaney Jr.
The story opens with a psychiatrist named Dr. Erik Lorimer (Bruce Bennet) telling a colleague about his amazing assistant, but he wasn’t discussing her incredible transcribing skills as you might expect. Instead he is describing her completely repressed former life and how he discovered it using measly injections of dangerous drugs.
The heroine, Joyce Webster (or Jane Marvin, depending on whether you ask before or after the mind-altering drugs) is played by Beverly Garland of Scarecrow and Mrs. King fame. Her story is one of pain, betrayal, suffering, and good old fashioned WTF?
Before she became a trained nurse, Joyce was once a blushing bride. On their honeymoon train ride, her husband Paul (Richard Crane) receives a mysterious telegram that causes him to mysteriously, and without explanation, disappear at the very next stop. As it turns out, years earlier during the great war (WWII) Paul was involved in a terrible plane crash which caused injuries rendering him almost unrecognizable.
Unbeknownst to his wife, he had volunteered for a super secret experiment in which the scientist, Dr. Sinclair (George Macready) infused his subjects with alligator DNA to help them attain amazing reptilian powers of regeneration. The good news is it gives the subjects the ability to heal from almost unimaginable injury. The bad news is that it also causes them to slowly transform into terrible mutants.
After the disappearance of her fiance from the mutant express, the lovely Joyce sets out on a journey to find her husband, who apparently she knows next to nothing about except that he once lived at the Cypresses Plantation.
When she reaches his childhood estate, she meets Manon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), a worker at the estate, along the road who warns her that the swamp is no place for a girl like her, and that the “damn slimy gators” will eat her alive as soon as look at her.
The Cypresses turns out to be an estate run by Mrs. Lavinia Hawthorne (Frieda Inescort) who is eventually revealed as Paul’s mother and who runs an extremely tight [lipped] household. The telegraph that Paul received was to warn him that the treatment was a failure and that he would soon be turning into a reptilian mutant. He is so ashamed of his new, scaly visage that he hides himself from his love and convinces his whole family to take part in the murky charade.
One night as Joyce tries to deal with the reality that she may never know what happened to her new husband, a strange figure tracks mud onto the beautifully manicured carpet downstairs and begins playing a haunting piano solo.
When Joyce investigates, she smells a rat (or reptile as the case may be.) Eventually she decides that she has to take matters into her own hands tromps into the swamp looking for Paul. Unfortunately, all she finds is a drunken Manon who does his best to bed the fair maid in his picturesque swamp shack.
After tripping over a few obviously-sedated gators and more than one African python, the blond beauty makes it back to the estate and convinces the good doctor to try a risky new experiment to save her beau.
Unfortunately, in the middle of the incredibly sensitive radiation treatment, Manon returns even more drunk than before and botches the whole procedure, effectively turning the only-slightly mutated Paul into a full on gator-headed freak.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that the whole thing ends in a strange pseudo-ethical debate between Joyce’s employers about whether to tell her the truth or let her go on blindly oblivious.
If for nothing else The Alligator People is definitely worth a watch to catch Lon Chaney going all whiskey-crazy no less than twice and for the kick-ass rubber gator head donned by Paul towards the end.
The Alligator People (1959)