CREATURE FEATURES #4: Lake Placid (1999)

A film about a croc munching people? Who better than our own Crocodile Dundee, Cal, to revisit Steve Miner’s horror-comedy? 

Who made it?: Steve Miner (Director), David E. Kelley (Writer/Co-Producer), Michael Pressman (Co-Producer),

Who’s in it?: Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson, Betty White, David Lewis.

Tagline: “Part Mystery Part Thriller Parts Missing.”

IMDb rating: 5.5/10.

Lake Placid is a stupid, jokey, abjectly forgettable member of the creature feature horror subgenre. Directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th 2 and 3Halloween: H20) and written by David E. Kelly (TV’s Ally McBeal), the film was apparently intended to be a horror-comedy since the filmmakers constructed it with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. However, the intentional camp is frequently ineffective, and the emphasis on comedy hopelessly hinders what had the potential to be a decent crocodile flick. With little humour to laugh at and even littler horror to scare genre fans (or anyone else), Lake Placid is not so bad that it’s good, it’s just so bad that it’s really, really bad.

In terms of plot, here’s the deal: while swimming in a Maine lake, a scuba diver is torn in half and a reptilian tooth is discovered embedded in his corpse. Following the incident, New York palaeontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) is dispatched to Maine to examine the tooth. Upon arrival, she meets with local game warden Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) and the town sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson), along with an entourage of deputies. When they head to the lake (which is not even called Lake Placid, by the way), the team are unexpectedly joined by mythology professor Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt). Soon, it’s ascertained that a giant, thirty-foot-long Asian crocodile (which leaked in from the ocean) has taken up residence in the lake. While Hank and Jack set out to eliminate the croc, Kelly and Hector are inclined to capture it alive.

Thus, the stage is set for a showdown between beast and man. Mayhem ensues, and a few major stars (who, contractually, cannot be eaten) are placed in danger. And this denotes the primary flaw of Lake Placid: it’s unable to scare us because literally no characters can be eaten (except for faceless supporting characters played by unknown actors). With the exception of the first victim, nobody is willing to enter the lake’s dank, black waters. Thus, the characters can only be in peril if they do something stupid, and they end up doing stupid things on a regular basis. Since the screenwriter only used character idiocy to bring about the croc attack scenes (rather than conceiving of anything creative), it’s not long before the only viable option is to root for the creature. After all, people this dumb should not be allowed access to the world’s oxygen supply. To top things off, not only were the characters given below normal intelligence, but so was the crocodile – in one scene, it stares at its potential food for a great length of time, but only attempts to attack once the person is safe.

It’s fortunate that Lake Placid runs a mere eighty minutes. Both the dialogue and the characters spouting said dialogue are equally stupid, and dead spots abound. Even worse, the movie attempts to get sentimental about the man-eating beast. As a direct result of this ill-advised sentimentality, it appears that the only villains in the movie are the protagonists hunting this giant crocodile which is simply trying to live its life and maintain a diet of moose, cows and grizzly bears. Former Golden Girl Betty White even points out in one scene that nobody lives on the lake, so it’s not much of a threat. Meanwhile, Miner’s execution of the script is terrible – Lake Placid is unmistakably cheap-looking. Admittedly, the animatronic crocodile (courtesy of Stan Winston’s team) is highly realistic, but the computer-generated images of the crocodile are beyond cheesy. Once the croc clambers out of the water in all its CGI glory, what’s revealed is not the type of monster to strike fear into the heart of a movie-goer.

Despite its flaws, there are at least a few laughs to be had, intentional or otherwise. For instance, one scene depicts the crocodile attacking a large helicopter. Not only is the concept preposterous, but the character reactions are hilarious. There’s also a decapitation that’s fairly amusing due to the hopelessly incompetent filmmaking. In the cast, meanwhile, Gleeson and Platt are an amusing coupling whose rivalry generates a few notable instances of laughter. Yet, these strong points constitute barely ten minutes of the film’s runtime. Watching clips on YouTube is a better option than enduring this mostly banal creature feature in its entirety. As a horror-thriller, Lake Placid is unable to generate even a slim moment of tension. It’s dull and plodding, with nary a decent scare. The only genuinely horrific thing about Lake Placid is that the cast and crew might have believed that they were making a good movie. Also terrifying is that SyFy produced a few sequels, starting with Lake Placid 2 in 2007.

Creature Chaos

The crocodile might be the least of their concerns.

Creature Confidential

(Via IMDb)
  • Betty White’s character is told that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) would be interested to learn of her alleged mistreatment of her cows. In reality, Betty White is a major on-air spokesperson for PETA.
  • In the hospital, someone can be heard paging Mr. Miner in the background, a reference to the director. Miner got his start working for producer Sean S. Cunningham and was a production assistant on Wes Craven’s infamous debut The Last House on the Left.
  • Sheriff Keough’s “big gun” was a fake gun made specifically as a prop for this movie. They even gave it a fake name, calling it a “Light Weight Forward Area Air Device Unit” which itself is a pretty good parody of military jargon. It was not an M-203 grenade launcher, which fires 40mm grenades. The “grenades” shown with the gun were a good deal smaller than 40mm.

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