The shark is the go-to when it comes to films about animals chowing down on hapless people. It's the number one predator in our cultural consciousness, equal parts unknowable and iconic. It also doesn't hurt that there is perhaps no better-known film in the genre than Jaws, a movie that raised the bar for bestial terror while also happening to revolutionize the blockbuster itself. Hard to beat that.
However, it isn't my favorite. That honor goes to the alligator, whose addition as a monstrous animal lends itself to a grungier atmosphere. While the shark represents a kind of open ocean majesty, the alligator is lurking, violent doom. They are devoid of the grandeur attributed to their crocodile cousins and instead, in these eight films, embody the murky, violent nature of wherever the filmmaker decides to place them.
The Alligator People (1959)
Coming in the wake of the success of The Fly, one might expect The Alligator People's low budget to prevent it from being anything but a reptile-themed riff on the concept of a science experiment gone amok. However, there is a surprising tragedy mined here, and the transformation into the titular monster comes after unraveling a secret that the co-lead is eager to hide from his loved one. In fact, there is little menace from the "alligator people" at all. The protagonist is much more antagonized by actual alligators in the swamp and other residents of the Louisiana bayou, including a brutish Lon Chaney Jr. Upon the reveal of his hideous visage, the alligator man flees from his wife and pitifully drowns in quicksand, never truly able to escape his past.
As you might be able to glean from the title, alligators are not the leading terror in FROGS. But they are among the amphibians, tarantulas, lizards, turtles, snakes, and other swamp creatures that come to menace a wealthy patriarch and his family on a plantation-esque estate. The Crockett family, led by a scenery-chewing Ray Milland, have been polluting their marshy home for years, and the wildlife is finally striking back. Whatever "southern comfort" was formerly found on the grounds is flipped, and the underbelly is scaly inescapable resentment.
Eaten Alive (1976)
Tobe Hooper's follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is another dive into the dark corners of the Lone Star State. Only here, instead of Leatherface and his hollering brothers, we find a scythe-wielding Judd (played by Neville Brand in his rowdiest role) and Judd's pet alligator. Judd runs a hotel, one he mostly uses as a means for murder and to populate his pet's swamp with lunch. Like with Chain Saw, Eaten Alive's location is presented as a rabbit hole of madness that people of all types seem destined to just disappear into, but the addition of an alligator ruins any chances for dinner table brotherhood. When Judd falls into his own swamp, the reptile is eager to chew him up as well.
With a delightfully clever script from John Sayles and a knockout cast (Robert Forster! Michael Gazzo! Henry Silva!), Alligator is the best film to come from the post-Jaws wave of outsized animal eco-horror. Here, the threat comes from the Chicago sewer, a place where refuse is dropped and forgotten. The main refuse, in this case, is a little girl's pet alligator, bought on a whim during a trip to Florida and discarded when it poops too much around the house. There is a commentary on corporate waste and unscrupulous medical practices, both of which come to a head when the alligator crashes a wedding party hosted by the corrupt magnate. This a very literal definition of a problem returning to bite you on the ass.
Alligator II: The Mutation (1990)
Alligator II: The Mutation mostly recycles the original, delivering the same plot (chemicals cause a sewer alligator to grow huge, and instead of a wealthy businessman causing most of the problems, it's an evil mayor) but with a less clever script. It still has a great cast, though (Dee Wallace! Richard Lynch! Steve Railsback!), and the theme of using an alligator to represent hidden sins is still strong. Here, the Mayor doesn't want a bus-sized reptile to ruin his big lake-side carnival. Spoiler alert: It definitely does, and then some.
An alligator is one of the first mutated creatures introduced in Annihilation, Alex Garland's wonderful film about a meteor crash creating a zone where biology becomes irrevocably warped. And though most of the shock comes from the initial reaction of "Oh my god! A big alligator in general! Run!", it's discovered that the alligator's mouth is lined with the teeth of a shark. It's a foreboding discovery that hints at the intense anatomical horror to come.
A lean thriller built primarily around alligator-chomping set pieces, Crawl isn't exactly the meatiest entry on this list when it comes to using alligators as a metaphor. Like Frogs, though, it presents nature as constantly on a precarious tipping point that's unbeknownst to most people. And when the water rises and the levee breaks, there will be barely a chance to escape what it unleashes.
In X, the alligator, like the twists involving the killers, is teased throughout the film until it explodes in violent fashion. In what becomes Chekhov's Reptile, we see it lurking multiple times, nearly on the cusp of devouring someone until it finally does. Again, it's not the film's main character (though it will get at least a cameo in the prequel, Pearl), but it serves as another concealed part of the backwoods setting. And the message is the same: Don't underestimate the swamp.