Independent films of the 1970s are often regarded as continuing the erosion of cultural norms and the continued worship of transgressive subjects that began in the ‘60s. As a self-proclaimed “70s Guy,” nothing makes me happier than this period in cinema – a time of freedom, change and vibrant counter-culture. I’ve made it my life’s work to share this enthusiasm with others, and regularly attend 16mm, 35mm and 70mm screenings (“always on film” is my mantra) in the City of Angels where I reside.
In the ‘70s, low-budget became the name of the game, and helped codify a style that eschewed larger-scale studio projects, elaborate production design, and more “polite” themes in storylines. In particular, the horror genre became a bastion of low-budget opportunities for a diverse group of women and men who may not have been hired to direct in previous decades, and were able to direct their first films in this more open creative environment.
Among these was a circle of directors who got their start working low-budget independent fare – most memorably for legendary producer Roger Corman, when he still owned the beloved New World Pictures. Rising talents taken under Corman’s wing included Francis Ford Coppola, Johathan Demme, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Stephanie Rothman, Martin Scorsese, Paul Bartel, Jack Hill, John Milius, John Sayles and Ron Howard. Another protege, who started in second-unit work before breaking out as a go-to genre director, was Lewis Teague, to which this piece is dedicated.
Teague worked on more commercial projects for Corman, such as Death Race 2000, Thunder & Lightning and Avalanche, while also finding time to co-helm the 1974 crime feature Dirty O’Neil. But it was the gut-punching, no-holds-barred, fists-of-glory depiction of American gangster John Dillinger in 1979’s The Lady in Red that brought Teague his first taste of directorial stardom.
A period piece set in the early 1930s, it focuses on the lady of the title and her sensational and scandalous relationship with Dillinger at the time of his death. Lady is a rousing, gritty portrayal starring Pamela Sue Martin as Polly Franklin, the unsuspecting girlfriend of Robert Conrad’s John Dillinger. It also features an array of other memorable talents – including Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd, and the late, great Robert Forster (though unbilled in a cameo). Noteworthy too is the film’s score, composed by a then-unknown James “Jamie” Horner.
Keeping in form with Corman’s own leftist bent and social consciousness, the film incorporates elements of Marxist irony and bold feminist statements, in addition to contending as one of Corman’s most eloquent and memorable pictures from New World’s Golden Era. Alligator was one of the first witty, sardonic takes on American culture by acclaimed writer-director John Sayles, reveling in the free-wheeling brothels and prohibition-era scandals of the era, while slyly commenting on the shady underhandedness of the law.
Teague’s creative vision was remarkable: his skill at finding locations in 1979 Los Angeles to double for 1930s Chicago was noteworthy, considering his budget was less than $500,000. Director of Photography Daniel Lacambre’s technique of utilizing a static camera for zoom-ins, combined with slow pans and quick cuts, showcases Teague’s imagination… and certainly captured mine.
This was most notable in Teague’s 1980 horror-comedy romp, Alligator. Teague teamed up again with John Sayles – who was by then in his creative prime – to compose a clever Jaws-inspired man-vs-monster fable, delivering unforgettable moments the audience would pay to see, while giving just enough attention to the characters and their arcs, in a way that subtly winks at the audience – and all within the context of a low-budget monster flick.
Teague’s technique sets the film apart from other “nature run amok” genre films; like the title beast, the film embarks on its own rampage, managing to stay a step ahead of its audience through the nail-biting climax. Sayles’ script and Teague’s direction are clearly a match made in horror genre heaven.
Forster takes the lead this time, and he’s in top form as always. The late actor once cited his role in Alligator as one of his personal favorites, and considering he’s worked with everyone from Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) to Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown), that’s pretty damned impressive. As Homicide Detective David Madison – a sarcastic but good-natured loner – handling a particularly grisly multiple-murder case that begins with human body parts washed up in the local water treatment plant.
After a chance encounter in Chicago’s antiquated sewer system brings him face-to-face with the gigantic man-eating reptile… the existence of which virtually no one else believes. Madison teams up with beautiful, brainy herpetologist Marisa Kendal (Robin Riker), and the pair set off on a bizarre, intense quest that slowly unravels a Chinatown-like conspiracy traced to a corrupt pharmaceutical company and its morally-vacant owner (Dean Jagger).
Teague once again uses smoke and mirrors to double Los Angeles locations for the streets of Chicago & St. Louis – but the film’s most memorable scenes actually take place under the streets, in the vast and labyrinthine sewer system where the titular monster is first discovered in its adult form. It seems the obvious choice, as the dark and twisting tunnels (most of which were filmed in a real sewer) pose an unpredictable sense of menace – and this is especially creepy in a darkened theater. It’s rare for an adult-oriented picture to make its audience scared of the dark; few other pictures manage to accomplish this.
But the brook doesn’t stop there, so to speak: the creature inevitably bursts from the underground to begin a rampage through the city, posing a threat to everyone – from innocent children to high-rolling spenders at big social events.
Alligator works on many levels – in particular due to its refreshing sense of humor, the uncompromising (if not very subtle) social commentary that would soon propel John Sayles into a successful directing career, and truly likable performances by Forster and Riker. Forster pulls no punches in his aggravated, mentally-anguished cop persona, but also breaks free of the standard leading man image that audiences normally expect in this kind of film.
Riker, who plays reptile expert Kendal with moxie, rises to the occasion as more than just an eye-candy sidekick/girlfriend, becoming a rational voice to balance Madison’s impulsive police instincts – which previously resulted in the loss of not just one, but two of his partners on the force.
Other notable performances include Michael Gazzo as the Chief of police, Henry Silva as a pompous, sleazy game hunter – a jab at the antiquated “Great White Hunter” image – and familiar character actor Sydney Lassick as an uncomfortable accomplice to the conspiracy… who becomes a victim himself.
I had the good fortune to run into Lewis Teague recently, and found his enthusiasm and energy belied his 82 years on this planet. We struck up a conversation, and once it turned to his time with Corman, he recalled – with good-humored enthusiasm, a touch of nostalgia and astoundingly vivid detail – his earliest days in the industry. He had been brought aboard the Corman train by Scorsese (having previously worked with him on Woodstock), and soon became firmly entrenched in the New World camp. We conversed about The Lady in Red (a personal favorite of mine) and the trials of finding film locations.
Teague’s best anecdote was about how Forster came to appear in the picture: he’d been on his way in to pitch an idea with Roger, and met Forster as he was leaving Corman’s office. Teague stopped him, and the two struck up a conversation. Forster was so taken with Teague’s creative ideas, he offered to take any role that Teague wrote for him. Oddly enough, Forster’s cameo in Lady was of his own choosing… but began a working partnership that would blossom over the years.
As we discussed Forster’s hands-on involvement with his character in Alligator, I got the impression Teague considers the film his best work – though his more mainstream fare had yet to come. I also brought up the 1982 vigilante drama Fighting Back, which is as gripping as it sounds, with a social bent on worldly violence. The film involves a deli store owner (Tom Skerritt) and his family who take a stand against local neighborhood gangs. The film also stars familiar stage and screen talents like Patti LuPone, Michael Sarrazin, Yaphet Kotto, David Rasche and Lewis Van Bergen.
Though not a financial success in its time, Fighting Back has amassed a cult following over the years – in part due to its gritty nature and raw emotion, contrasted with similar-themed but more stylized “Hollywood” vigilante films like Death Wish and Night of the Juggler, which focused more on the thrill of sweet revenge. To hear Teague explain it, with so many stage actors in the cast, he basically let them improvise most of their scenes. Taken aback, I’d asked him if he had any reservations about such an ambitious decision… but he simply shook his head.
Teague would go on to successfully adapt Stephen King’s Cujo in 1983, firmly establishing his name in the canon of ‘80s horror cinema; it also gave him the cachet to re-team with King for Cat’s Eye in 1985. He’s since directed big-budget studio films – his best-known being Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to 1984’s Romancing the Stone – but it’s Teague’s genre output that most of us remember fondly.
If there is a “diamond in the rough” among late ‘70s and early ‘80s cinema, Alligator is it, establishing Lewis Teague as one of the unsung directors of that era, and we as horror fans are certainly the better for his efforts. Of all the pictures he crafted – each of them excellent in its own right – I think this early project will always stand, for all of the merits listed above, as the finest example of Teague’s commitment to pure cinema. You don’t need a huge budget; you don’t need an all-star cast; you don’t need to fall into the same old Hollywood clichés. All you need is imagination – and Teague has demonstrated how a skilled artist can translate that into an uproarious good time at the movies.