Screenplay : David E. Kelley
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Bill Pullman (Jack Wells), Bridget Fonda (Kelly Scott), Oliver Platt (Hector Cyr), Brendan Gleeson (Sheriff Hank Keough), Betty White (Mrs. Delores Bickerman), David Lewis (Walt Lawson), Tim Dixon (Stephen Daniels)
"Lake Placid" is a silly, jokey, utterly forgettable but not unwatchable creature feature about a 30-foot crocodile that has apparently swum all the way from Asia and taken up residence in a secluded lake in Maine.
Now, the idea of a 30-foot, man-eating crocodile isn't particularly original, but it is fairly nerve-wracking, especially when you see how fast it moves and how, unlike the shark in "Jaws" (1975), it can come after you on land. But, the main problem with "Lake Placid" is not the uninspired plainness of a big crocodile (couldn't it at least have been mutated by toxic waste or something?), but the fact that it doesn't give us much to be scared about because there's literally no one around to be eaten. With the exception of a diver tagging beavers for scientific research at the beginning of the movie, no one goes near the lake's dank, stagnant, black waters.
Therefore, the movie has to concoct characters to go after the crocodile in order to put someone in danger. This is roughly what happened in the last third of "Jaws," but it was all for the sake of saving poor beachgoers from becoming lunchmeat. With the exception of a kooky old woman (Betty White) who lives near the lake, no one is in danger in this movie. The primal fear of being eaten alive from beneath that fueled "Jaws" and its silly imitators like "Piranha" (1978) is completely lost on "Lake Placid."
Perhaps screenwriter David E. Kelley (better known as the creator of "Ally McBeal") had this in mind all along. Perhaps this was his way of distinguishing "Lake Placid" from the earlier movies to which it was bound to be compared. After all, as strange as it seems, his screenplay actually tries to get sentimental about the reptilian beast, even after it has ripped a man in half and taken another's head off (all of which is shown, of course, in gory detail). In fact, if there are villains in this movie, it's the people who go hunting after the poor crocodile, which is simply try to live its life and maintain its healthy Maine diet of moose, cows, and the occasional grizzly bear (the scene that shows the croc springing out of the water and taking a full-grown bear is, incidentally, the movie's best scene).
The crocodile hunters are comprised of a Fish & Game warden (Bill Pullman), a New York paleontologist (Bridget Fonda), the local sheriff (Brendan Gleeson), and a slightly loony, rich mythology professor (Oliver Platt) who likes swimming with crocodiles for fun because he thinks they're "divine conduits" (after all, most ancient culture worshipped them). During the hunt, Pullman and Fonda develop the requisite romantic interest, but the movie's most amusing coupling is between Gleeson and Platt, who are natural-born enemies and slowly become begrudging comrades. After all, what could a grumpy, red-neck Maine sheriff hate more than a helicopter-flying, big-mouth rich boy who's begging to save the very reptile that's being hunted?
Director Steve Miner ("Halloween: H20") delivers obligatory scenes of menace from the croc's point of view, Stan Winston's creature effects are realistic enough not to be distracting, and John Ottman's music works overtime to punctuate what few thrills the movie has to offer. It is obvious that Miner and Kelley understood from the outset that the conventions of this genre have been worn out long ago, but instead of even trying to be satirical or ironic, they go for straight slapstick humor. Some of it works, some of it doesn't.
If the humor of Bridget Fonda's city girl constantly complaining about mosquitoes and ticks and sleeping in tents doesn't really click, at least several of the quick verbal exchanges between Gleeson and Platt are amusing. But, even then, it feels less like authentic laughs than filler in a horror movie that simply doesn't know how to be scary.
©1999 James Kendrick