Today’s review is on “Lake Placid,” a 1999 movie about a gigantic killer crocodile terrorizing a remote lake in Maine.
“Lake Placid” was directed by Steve Miner, who has been working as a director in television and movies since the early 80s. His biggest credits outside of “Lake Placid” are probably “Friday the 13th Part 2,” “Friday the 13th Part III: 3D,” “Halloween H20,” and the 2008 remake of “Day of the Dead.” “Lake Placid” was written by David E. Kelley, who has had significant success creating and writing television shows such as “Boston Legal,” “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal,” “LA Law,” and “Doogie Howser,” but hasn’t done a whole lot of work in movies. Cinematographer Daryn Okada had previously worked with Miner on “Halloween H20,” but most of his experience is interestingly in comedies, such as “Black Sheep” and “Captain Ron,” and has since worked on larger productions such as “Mean Girls” and “Let’s Be Cops.”
“Lake Placid” marks the third film I have covered to feature work from legendary creature creator Stan Winston (the other two being “Small Soldiers” and “The Bat People”). Most seem to consider “Lake Placid” to be one of the lesser entries in his career: he is only creating a crocodile, after all, and most of the heavy lifting is done through CG. However, I still think it looks pretty solid. Even the CG used has held up a lot better than I expected it to, and looks more or less on par with today’s “Sharknadoes” and the other Asylum monster flicks. That isn’t too shabby for 1999.
“Lake Placid” was unsurprisingly a critical failure, currently holding a 40% critics score and 36% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. However, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, “Lake Placid” grossed just under 57 million dollars on a budget of 27 million, making it a financial success. The movie eventually got 3 direct-to-tv sequels that received significant airtime on the Sci-Fi / SyFy network, which I think have kept it in the public consciousness longer than it would have otherwise. I personally consider “Lake Placid” to be one of the primary forerunners to the Asylum monster movies that make up the mainstay of SyFy’s original movie lineup today, including “Mega Shark,” “Sharknado,” and “Supercroc.”
The cast of “Lake Placid” is made up primarily of B-list actors, led by Bridget Fonda, who was coming off of starring in Sam Raimi’s 1998 movie “A Simple Plan.” Bill Pullman co-stars, following up on a handful of successful roles in the mid-1990s (“Independence Day,” “Lost Highway”). The rest of the cast includes Brendan Gleeson, Oliver Platt (one of my favorite character actors), and Betty White, who essentially defined her modern persona with her role in this movie.
Essentially, “Lake Placid” follows the formula of “Jaws”: something is killing people in the waters off a small town, but it is unclear what it is. The local police (Gleeson and Pullman) are stumped, which leads to a big city, out-of-towner expert being called in (Fonda). An eccentric hunter then shows up who gives the impression that he can solve the situation (Platt), and off the story goes a-hunting the monster.
Apart from Brody being split in two, there are a few other differences in the formula for “Lake Placid.” Firstly, Hooper is replaced with a woman character, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea. This allows for a romance subplot, but also unfortunately opens the door for a lot of lazy, shitty comedy, which I will delve into in a bit. The setting of a lake, as opposed to the ocean, doesn’t allow for the same kind of isolation and character developmental opportunities during the hunting process that is allowed for in “Jaws.” This winds up being a pretty big weakness for the movie: the characters don’t get much depth, because they don’t spend enough time together outside of the action for the audience to get to know them.
For me, the biggest problem for the movie is in its attempts to be funny. I didn’t remember this as a horror comedy, because honestly, it just isn’t. Most of the humor is lazy, dull, or just off the mark in general. Instead of poking at the weaknesses of the genre or the ludicrousness of the plot (see: “Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead”), it tries to find humor in the fact that one of the characters is a woman, and can’t handle camping outdoors. It just doesn’t work, because it isn’t funny. There is a way to make a funny movie out of a “Jaws” scenario, but “Lake Placid” just isn’t it. Honestly, I think someone knew this, because the movie is not marketed as a comedy in any way. On a shelf, it just looks like another monster movie, and that is what it really should have been. Even “Jaws” itself is funnier than this movie, and all of the comedy in that movie is done as relief. There isn’t a single moment in “Lake Placid” (without Betty White in it) that is as funny as any of the comic relief moments in “Jaws,” which is pretty bad for a movie that is trying to be a comedy.
To the movie’s credit, there are a number of things I like in it. Stan Winston’s effects are fantastic as usual, and there is also a pretty cool action sequence or two in which the crocodile takes on a helicopter. Oliver Platt manages to stay charming despite the issues with the dialogue and writing, and is the biggest highlight in the movie outside of Betty White. The ending also taken an interesting turn in that the characters decided not to kill the crocodile, which is unusual for the genre. Over the credits, there is a shot of the tranquilized crocodile being hauled via a semi-truck to Florida, I would assume to be placed in a zoo or preserve. Just from skimming the IMDb boards, this seems to have elicited a mixed reaction from audiences.
As a side note, I can’t help but feel that “Lake Placid” suffers from the “Pacific Rim” effect of having an incredibly poor title that fails to convey the plot of the movie. Surely they could have done better than that, right? Even “Crocodile” or “Croc” would have worked better if you ask me.
I have seen a good number of comparisons between “Lake Placid” and “Deep Blue Sea,” another 1999 movie that has developed a bit of a cult following. I personally have a more vivid memory of “Deep Blue Sea,” but on my last re-watch I don’t recall the CGI holding up quite as well as it does in “Lake Placid.” That said, the dialogue and acting seems much better in “Deep Blue Sea,” and it doesn’t try to hit the comedy angle in the way that “Lake Placid” does. Personally, I think that is a weakness in the “Lake Placid” script, so I’m generally on Team “Deep Blue Sea,” but I think it merits another re-watch. It does have an LL Cool J rap, which I don’t believe “Lake Placid” can claim. Point: “Deep Blue Sea.”
Overall, I was surprised at how bad “Lake Placid” is in retrospect, in particular because the things that were bad were not the things I expected. A lot of the problems are in the dialogue and writing: it half-heartedly tries to be self-aware and counter-genre, but the attempts at humor aren’t executed very well. Oliver Platt is a great comedic actor, but even he couldn’t make the dialogue for his character actually funny. In general, I have to agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film: it is “completely wrong-headed from beginning to end.” He hilariously also calls it a “sort of failed Anaconda,” which is an arguably equally awful movie, which Ebert adored for reasons that I don’t think anyone truly understands.
I might recommend this movie for the sake of nostalgia, because there are some ok bits here and there in the film. The characters and writing is generally just so awful though that it is difficult to sit through any sequences in which a crocodile isn’t actively attacking something. Luckily, the movie doesn’t bother with the human element too much, so you might be able to bear it. (speaking of bears…)