Retro Review: Lake Placid (1999).
This campy crocodile flick got laughed out of theaters, but I like this misunderstood monster.
Lake Placid was always a bit of an odd duck. It felt like an old homage to classic creature features, but was completely self aware. It was hard to guess the tone of the flick from the casting, which had equal parts people known for serious drama and b-list comedy icons. There were some great animatronics for the giant croc, but also some shabby CG. Set in Maine, it could have been going for “Jaws, with a Stephen King dialect” or it could have been “Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Northern Exposure.”
Watching the film doesn’t clear up many of these confusions. Despite the pot-luck dinner that was the film’s cast and tone, I enjoyed the heck out of Lake Placid when it came out. It turns out that 20 years later, it’s still a toothy good time.
Lake Placid (1999).
When a fish and game officer goes missing at Black Lake, the gruff sheriff (Brendan Gleeson) heads up to the lake with another fish and game officer (Bill Pullman), a paleontologist (Bridget Fonda) and an eccentric cryptozoologist (Oliver Platt) to find out what’s been attacking the local people and wildlife. They discover a massive crocodile is behind the mayhem, and is growing bolder in its attacks. It’s up to them to take out the creature, though they disagree about capturing it versus blowing it to kingdom come.
Director Steve Miner was predominantly known for making horror movies. He got his start behind the camera with the first three Friday the 13th films, and went on to make some cult classics like House, Warlock, and the Day of the Dead remake. Sprinkled into this filmography are an weird assortment of oddballs, like the Rick Moranis/Tom Arnold comedy, Big Bully, the horror comedy Night of the Creeps, and even a stint on The Wonder Years. He brings a lot of that eclectic sensibility to Lake Placid.
If you just watched the bits with the creature, you’d feel like you’re watching a mostly competent mash-up of naturalist creature features. If you just watch the main cast sequences, you’d think you were watching a fish-out-of-water TV comedy, with everyone squabbling while Bill Pullman perpetually presides over with his “can you believe this stuff?!” look.
Gonna Need a Bigger Boat.
I think the obvious template for Lake Placid is Jaws, but with each role played more for humor than harrowing thrills. Brendan Gleeson is the hardcase like Quint, more interested in deep-sixing the beast than making a zoological discovery. Oliver Platt is leaning into the more idiosyncratic bits of Richard Dreyfus’ oceanographer role. Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda split Chief Brody down the middle, with Pullman getting his put-upon wry persona and Fonda getting his no-nonsense attitude.
Into this mix you get quite a bit of Jurassic Park. There’s more than a passing attempt to borrow the chemistry of the Sam Neill/Laura Dern/Jeff Goldblum trio of specialists trying to understand the improbable mega-fauna surrounding them. The animatronic crocodile wouldn’t feel too out of place in either film.
…And Then Betty White Feeds the Thing a Cow.
The campy weirdness can definitely overpower the horror/thriller aspects. Brendan Gleeson’s character constantly has his legs cut out from underneath him by pratfalls. Bill Pullman pulls faces for the camera to the point where it feels like he wandered onto the set and the director just kept him in for his expressions. At no point did I have any illusions that he was going to do something heroic, which may have disappointed folks who assumed the handsome, dashing guy would eventually lend a hand for once.
It comes to head with a cameo from Betty White who winds up being the reason why the croc has (utterly impossibly) survived in a fresh water lake in Maine, as she regularly feeds the damn thing cattle. Twenty years later, that cameo would have had the audiences rolling. In 1999, it was just another out of place element in the film.
Ayuh, It’s a Giant Croc, Alright.
Lake Placid isn’t great, though I don’t think it’s nearly as bad enough to warrant the savaging it took from critics. Miner seems to have his eye on a self-aware homage at all times. Besides the opening kill scene, the whole project has a perpetual wink to it. Sometimes it winks too hard (Pullman) and sometimes it feels like not everyone was in on the joke (Fonda), but overall its a campy and fun jaunt. A talented cast keeps it from tipping over in either direction, and the visuals are solid…unless you count the bear versus croc scene which is just CG gobbledygook.
The giant crocodile flick hasn’t had many able entries in it. It’s certainly not had an Ur film like Jaws to create a high-water mark. Lake Placid is better than the straight to VHS fare that surrounded it (and to which it shamefully contributed four sequels.) If Crawl put you in the mood for reptilian mayhem, you could do worse than paddle out to Lake Placid for an afternoon.