At the Drive-In: “Gator Bait” (1974)

Gator Bait
Claudia Jennings as Desiree Thibideau

“Pete Bracken, you horny bastard. That’s your sister!” This may be my favorite piece of dialogue ever written. It had me throwing my head back and laughing out loud. But it’s not just the silly dialogue that makes this film so memorable, it’s the unfiltered look of a swamp and the savagery that it inflicts on the people that go searching inside of it. It’s also the red-hot, red-headed sex-pot that was cast as Desiree Thibodeou, played by 1970’s playmate of the year, Claudia Jennings. ‘Gator Bait is pure 1970’s lowbudget, independent filmmaking at it’s best. It’s one of those films that you’d pay a quarter to see at a double-feature drive-in movie theater. You don’t pay to go see a well made film, you pay to go see the exploitive action, violence, and sex.

The film was produced by husband and wife moviemaking team, Ferd and Beverly Sebastian. They were Roger Corman’s of the 1970’s and 80’s with a string of successful lo-budget films. Now, when I say “successful” I don’t mean that their films were critically praised, but that they had gained an audience and the films returned, even profited, it’s money. It’s the kind of success that I admire: spend a little to make a whole lot.

‘Gator Bait was shot at a lake on the Louisiana/Texas border, using a single handheld 35mm camera. Ferd Sebastian was the director and cinematographer, and he set up some amazing shots. It’s rare that we ever see an entire film taking place in a swamp, and even though ‘Gator Bait was not shot in the far-reaching depths of the swamp, it still felt like it was. We’ve got cameras pushing past low hanging Spanish moss and in murky water. It all creates for a feeling of being trapped inside a marshy land where there’s no means of escape and danger lurks behind every bush.

Even though the film is crude, the story is intact and deserves some praise. It begins with Billy Boy, the sheriff’s dim witted son, and Ben Bracken, waiting for the allusive Desiree to collect an alligator from one of her traps. When she arrives, the boys give chase which ends with Ben Bracken being accidentally shot by Billy Boy. Instead of confessing to the shooting, Billy Boy tells his father that Desiree shot Ben and so begins the manhunt (or fiery-vixen-hunt) for Desiree Thibodeou. There’s a hardboiled tone to this southern crime story. It includes elements of rape, incest, murder, lies, and betrayal that all escalates to a shock ending of hidden truths. It may not be a staple piece of the crime genre, but it does have some note worthy dramatic moments that a crime writer can learn from. On top of all that, the film has a one-of-a-kind original folk song with vocals by Lee Darin.

So, if you’re ever in the mood to crack open a twelve pack of Budweiser and fart and scratch yourself into a dull stupor on the sofa with a movie, ‘Gator Bait might be the ideal choice. However, you should watch closely. The film may have its flaws, but it also has its unique brilliance that can only come from a drive-in movie of the 1970’s.

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