Halloween Horror: Lake Placid (1999)

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Arriving in the summer of 1999 at the tail end of the 90s blockbuster era, Lake Placid is a feeble high-concept monster movie and a flaccid horror comedy.[1] The central problem with Lake Placid is that the filmmakers neither coherently nor entertainingly exploit the film’s vivid premise about a giant man-eating crocodile menacing a lake in Maine (note: it’s not set in Lake Placid, NY). Given the film’s bungled storyline and characters and its mediocre entertainment value, I was amazed to discover that Lake Placid has acquired over the years a modest reputation as a cult movie, and that several TV-movie sequels have been made. There’s not a lot that is entertaining about the movie, and what is strange and noteworthy about the film doesn’t work within the narrative.

The film’s most obvious reference point is Jaws, and a quick comparison to Spielberg’s classic lays bare the many inadequacies of Lake Placid. One of the many brilliant aspects of Jaws is how the narrative creates plausible necessity for characters to get into the water, such as the seaside town needing summer revenue from beach tourists. In contrast, Lake Placid never constructs believable reasons for the characters to risk life and limb in the water, particularly once the crocodile is discovered, since, as one character observes, the lake is isolated and seldom used. Thus, stupid and zany characters are provided to try to propel the narrative and hold our interest.

Like the plot, the characters are highly contrived. For example, the main character, Kelly Scott (played by Bridget Fonda), is a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This big city scientist is awkwardly roped into the plot via the tooth the crocodile leaves in its first victim, since someone mistakes the tooth for a dinosaur’s, and they call the museum for help. Oh, and her boss at the museum has just broken up with her, so she wants to get away from it all, or something like that. Her character is a clumsy attempt at introducing a fish-out-of-water city slicker character.

Bill Pullman is Jack Wells, a local game officer, and Pullman plays his usual slightly gruff, slightly charming leading man. For some reason, the sheriff of this small Maine town is Irish (and so played by Brendan Gleeson). Gleeson scores some points for his sardonic bluster. Oliver Platt plays Hector Cyr, a wannabe Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, but while Malcolm is a rockstar mathematician who is probably a womanizer and certainly too touchy with women, Platt’s jet-setting, crocodile-obsessed mythologist is not only unbelievable but also an unequivocal sexual harasser, as well as a jerk in general. What’s with his obtuse fat jokes about the sheriff? The jokes aren’t funny to the other characters, and they’re too unnatural to make the audience laugh. Overall, the characters are sometimes mildly amusing but also frequently annoying, and most of their decisions are bad, even by horror movie standards.

The colourful cast could have populated a passable monster movie, but sadly the narrative is a total dud. Lake Placid has the idea of a man-eating giant crocodile, but has no clear approach for what kind of story would work best for this concept. Is this a scary horror movie? A horror comedy? A spoof of a horror movie? Like Victor Frankenstein (2015), which I reviewed for Halloween last year, Lake Placid fails to capitalize on most of its opportunities to generate horror. There are a couple of decent moments of suspense and fright in the water early on, but when a false alarm from a passing beaver is a monster movie’s biggest scare, there’s a problem with its ability to generate horror or suspense.

Betty White plays a crazy old lady, who is the only resident on the lake, and who turns out to have killed her husband and to have a secret mother-like relationship with the crocodile. Her character could have been turned into an intriguing villain, but she disappears for most of the story, until the wasted twist in the movie’s final minutes.

The sequels to Lake Placid—which I hope never to watch—are the sort of horror sequels that have posters featuring scantily clothed women without heads in positions of peril. The posters at least suggest the kind of low-grade titillation and base appeal that this film also fails to achieve. Despite Lake Placid flirting with some slasher possibilities, such as with Hector Cyr’s late-night tent party and his constant advances on a nubile sheriff deputy, the movie never really develops into a slasher since the body count remains pretty low. Late in the narrative, Lake Placid transforms into an action-suspense-driven imitation of Jurassic Park as the characters plan and execute an ambush on the crocodile in a cove at night.

The worst part of Lake Placid, however, is the feigned animal rights ethics. I found the calloused attempt to inject a message about wildlife conservation into a movie premised around hunting down a man-eating monster fairly disgusting. People have been killed! Surely that justifies using lethal force to eliminate the beast. The film supplies sentimental music to try to emphasize the message at times, but then it also jokes about the choice to save the beast—”You shouldn’t have saved it,” Jack quips when Hector Cyr is suddenly attacked. The conservation angle—how do we stop the crocodile without killing it?—actually seems mostly likely a cheap way to extend the plot another act. Maybe they could just quarantine the lake? Or just shoot it? But once again, the filmmakers don’t provide a strong sense of purpose or direction.

Another telling example of the film’s flailing efforts is the late and brief revelation of a second crocodile, which is then blown away almost instantly by a shotgun. Is the surprise appearance/kill an attempt at absurdist humour or just a bad narrative choice? Is this a joke for the audience, or a joke on the audience?

If you are searching for an effective monster movie or horror comedy, Lake Placid won’t be worth your visit. That said, Lake Placid does occupy a slightly interesting place in film history, since it’s a good example of the 90s high-concept summer blockbuster running its course.

[1] While the 1990s of course had a flourishing summer blockbuster industry, I think a distinct blockbuster pattern emerges in the 2000s, focused around pre-existing franchise properties and involving opening up the spring months and the winter holiday season as further blockbuster markets. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999 and X-Men in 2000 mark the turn, and then things really take off in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Released the same summer as The Phantom Menace, Lake Placid looks like a last gasp of the high-concept-oriented 90s blockbuster before the franchise juggernaut took over.

2 out of 10

Lake Placid (1999, USA)

Directed by Steve Miner; written by David E. Kelley; starring Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson, and Betty White.