Nope, this has nothing to do with the 1980 Winter Olympics which featured the famous “Miracle on Ice,” the David E. Kelley-scripted, Steve Miner-directed horror-adventure-comedy Lake Placid is about a 30 foot crocodile which somehow made it to a lake in Maine. You know, that movie. At the time, nobody seemed to give it much thought, offering derisive reviews and commentary about it being silly and not scary at all and as a result I never ended up watching it upon its release in 1999. In fact, I never saw it at all in the intervening 15 years, save a glance here or there when it would show up on the Sci-Fi Channel (precursor to Syfy). If not for the new Blu-ray collector’s edition from Scream Factory, I think it would be fair to say I’d never have given it a second thought. However, they did release it and I did watch it… and I liked it! You know why? Because it’s silly and not scary at all.
Written on spec by the television law-show guru Kelley, Lake Placid has all the trappings of your average post-Jurassic Park giant animal horror movie, and it was rated R to give it the extra push. However, the draw to this movie isn’t the gore (which is there but minimal), it’s the ridiculousness of the characters and the joke-loaded dialogue. You know what doesn’t hurt, though? The effects, both practical and computer-generated, are surprisingly good. Stan Winston himself did an animatronic version of the massive croc. There’s a remote control cow for the scenes where one is used as bait. Betty White swears up a storm! Man, this movie’s fun.
The plot is very simple, but it bears a mention: In Maine, in an idyllic lake near a small town, something massive is lurking below the surface. While out to check something, a diver is bitten in half by some massive beast, and the only eye witness to this is Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson trying so hard not to sound Irish). Animal control is brought in to investigate in the form of Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) and everything seems to be completely under control… but for whatever reason, Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda), a paleontologist from the Natural History Museum in New York City, is sent to help. Why? Because he boyfriend/boss just told her that he’s leaving her for her best friend. Oooh, tough break there. (Also, Adam Arkin and Mariska Hargitay play those two characters, respectively. So that’s fun.) Since she’s a paleontologist, she might know about… big animals… actually there’s no real reason she should have been sent, and that’s the fun of it. Movies like this are always putting unlikely “experts” in harm’s way for the purposes of plot and story.
But, she’s not the only one who shows up for seemingly no reason; wealthy environmentalist (because those exist) Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt) flies his own private helicopter to the lake as well, because he’s been tracking the beast in question: a 30-foot, 150 year old crocodile that somehow managed to swim thousands of miles from where it belongs to end up in the porch-whittling capital of North America. He and the sheriff do not get along, but he and one of the deputies (Meredith Salenger) get along juuuuuuuuuuuust fine. Now, there’s only one person who lives around the lake, and that’s the elderly Mrs. Bickerman (Betty White) who has no love for authority and claims to have seen nothing going on at all. It is, however, later discovered that she’s known about the croc for 6 years, it ate her husband, and she’s been feeding it her own cows ever since. She calls the sheriff a “f**kmeat” at one point, and Betty White saying that is worth the price of admission alone.
As if you couldn’t tell from the tone so far, this movie is really silly, but purposely so. It doesn’t have a high body count at all, but it does have a fair amount of suspense in between the scenes of humorous bickering. Fonda’s character is a textbook NYC princess who wants nothing to do with the out of doors, but also has nowhere to go. She slaps Gleeson quite a lot, too, which is hilarious. She and Pullman, naturally, start to make eyes at each other, except neither of them possess the romantic wherewithal to make anything happen, which leads to some funny moments. Platt plays the Oliver Platt character of the funny, fast-talking, know-it-all jerk, but he’s great at it so of course it works.
And the best part? The best part, you guys? It’s a moment when, after an argument where the sheriff and animal control again claims the thing they’re looking for isn’t a giant crocodile, they are suddenly startled by a giant brown bear who rears up on its hind legs and looks about to attack. As if this completely-out-of-nowhere thing wasn’t silly enough, the bear just happens to have stood up right by the edge of the lake and just as its about to pounce, the croc is revealed, biting the bear on the leg and dragging it into the water. That’s right, folks; this is the movie where a crocodile eats a bear. Why aren’t you watching this movie right now?
There’s a really nice making-of and retrospective documentary on the Blu-ray, a little over a half-hour long, and featuring interviews with actor Bill Pullman, director Steve Miner, director of photography Daryn Okada, and others. There’s also interviews with special effects team members who talk about the trials, and also the tribulations, of creating a big huge crocodile robot. In keeping with the tone of the movie itself, this is a good time.
In short, this is a great example of a late-90s, foul-mouthed monster movie with all kinds of laughs, one or two scares, and a firm grasp on the kind of movie it is. Check it out for sure.