Maybe you’ve heard of One.Perfect.Shot. It’s an online repository cataloging (what its editors consider) the finest still frames in all moviedom: perfectly composed, perfectly lit shots from the history of cinema. There’s a lot of good stuff there, some obvious, some obscure.
Try as I might, though, I haven’t found my own perfect shot, the one that has stuck in my head for lo these . . . I dunno, thirty or so years?
I speak of this:
. . . From 1980’s Alligator, one of a jumble of unapologetic Jaws rip-offs that peppered the late Seventies/early Eighties. We’re talking about Grizzly and Tentacles and Orca and Piranha. I was actually shocked to discover that Alligator was the last of these to be released; in my own man-eating beast hierarchy, it seemed obvious that the first flick you’d make after the smashing success of a killer shark movie would be a killer alligator movie.
I don’t remember exactly when I saw Alligator for the first time. I’m guessing middle-schoolish. And I really didn’t recall much about it—except for my one perfect shot, which has been seared in my head ever since.
A quick summary of the movie: pet alligator gets flushed down the toilet by exasperated father. Said alligator grows up eating the discarded remains of animals subjected to a growth serum by a shady pharmaceutical corporation. Said alligator grows to monstrous size, escapes the sewers, and terrorizes the city. In the midst of all this carnage, one determined homicide detective played by Robert Forster works to stop the beast whilst making four—count ‘em, FOUR—jokes about his receding hairline. Seriously–that running gag concerning his retreating coif comprises the main stab at humor in the entire movie.
Now to set up the scene for my perfect shot:
We already know the gator is chilling in a pool; minutes earlier, sandwiching one of those receding-hairline bits, we see police helicopters scanning residential neighborhoods for the monster. Closing in on one particular pool, we see an untidy array of drifting floats . . . and, amid them, the scales of one cleverly concealed reptile.
When we return to the pool, night has fallen. The pool is dark. There’s a kids’ costume party going on in the house. Two bigger kids, dressed as pirates, haul a little boy out to walk the plank—that is, the diving board. And just as they hustle their prisoner to the edge, Mom leans out and turns on the pool light to illuminate this:
It’s actually not a very compellingly staged scene. Outside of that one, tenth-of-a-second close-up of the gator’s lit-up jaws, there’s no real tension, no pause to build up the suspense. But man . . . that shot. That shot.
I have this thing with alligators, as you may know—enough to write a whole novel about one man’s encounter with an albino gator he finds basking at the foot of the fold-out sofa bed on which he had been sleeping. (Yep, that’s a shameless plug for ya.) Writing novels is hard. You don’t just sit down and reel off 75,000 words on a whim. Somewhere within you, though, is the nugget of a narrative, the very first inkling that you have something to say. And it can come from the most random memory. I’ve always wondered if this frame from a pleasant-but-mostly-forgettable Jaws knockoff was the spark that led me to write Now It Gets Interesting. It’s impossible to say for sure. But I am glad to report that, decades later, that one moment, that one shot, still gets to me the way it did when I was a kid.
One thing I will not forget, having rewatched Alligator as an adult: the amazingly ludicrous scene near the end where the big bastard rampages through an outdoor wedding, then kills the CEO of the shady pharmaceutical corporate by caving in the old man’s limo around him with its tail. If you don’t want to watch the whole movie, you still owe it to yourself to watch THIS:
I plan to stage a reenactment of this scene at my own wedding one day.