Lake Placid (1999) **½
One of the last of those insidious 90’s-style comedies-masquerading-as-horror-movies to actually be made in the 1990’s, Lake Placid is, by a fair margin, better than most. Its strongest points are its refusal to adhere too rigidly to the formula of its sub-genre while exaggerating to ridiculous extremes those formula elements that it does use on the one hand, and on the other, a charmingly vitriolic take on the modern convention of character dialogue that consists mostly of insults, epithets, and petty bickering. On the downside, this movie features some seriously bad acting and the most vexatious characters ever, far too many of whom survive to the end of the movie.
In the beginning, we have a couple of guys out on a boat on Black Lake (“They wanted to call it ‘Lake Placid’, but somebody said it was already taken”), somewhere in Maine. One of these men is from the Fish and Wildlife Service; he is here to tag beavers. The big, fat, twinkie-eating guy is Sheriff Hank (who must have a last name, but I can’t recall anyone ever saying it-- I can tell you that the “actor” who plays him is Brendan Gleeson, though). The Fish and Wildlife guy dives off the boat and swims around below for a while, looking for beavers I suppose. He finds something else altogether, something much larger and meaner than beavers generally get, which proceeds to drag him around the lake at a good 15 miles per hour before biting his sorry ass in half at the waist. The poor man had been trying to climb into the boat at the time of his final bisection, so Sheriff Hank is left with the unenviable job of rowing the upper half of his body home.
In one of those delightful exaggerations of the formula I mentioned earlier, local Fish and Wildlife honcho Jack Weller (Bill Pullman, whose acting has not improved in the slightest since he made Independence Day three years before) tries to convince Sheriff Hank that his companion was actually attacked by a bear. Now, you and I and Hank and every-fucking-body else know that bears not only lack the capability to bite the human body in half, but are also not known for attacking underwater or swimming at 12 knots. The issue is finally resolved when forensics finds a tooth in what is left of the victim’s spine. Needless to say, it isn’t a bear tooth, and somebody gets it in their head that the thing to do is make a call to some big New York museum in the hope that one of their paleontologists can identify the tooth’s original owner. (Uh oh.)
Thus it is that we are introduced to Kelly (Bridget Fonda-- yes that Bridget Fonda!)-- who, like Hank, lacks a last name-- one of said museum’s paleontologists, and a front-runner for the “Character Whom the Audience Would Most Like to See Eaten” crown. When we first meet her, Kelly is whining about how her boyfriend, who is also her boss, just dumped her. The person to whom she is thus whining is her best friend, who is also a co-worker, and who turns out also to be the person for whom she was dumped. More and louder whining follows. In the next scene, her boss/ex-boyfriend comes to tell her about the strange tooth in Maine, and to send her off to inspect it first-hand. More and louder whining follows.
But she goes anyway, and determines that the tooth is certainly reptilian, but that examination with a microscope will be necessary for a more specific identification. After conspicuously not using the microscope right behind her, Kelly flies out to Black Lake to see the natural habitat of the mystery reptile. She hooks up with Jack Weller, Sheriff Hank, and some Expendable Meat, is given some background information about the lake, and is shown the intended campsite. Kelly is less than pleased about the idea of camping in the woods, and more and louder whining follows. When she finishes whining, she and the rest of the team go to interview the lake’s sole human inhabitant, the aptly-named Mrs. Bickerman (Betty White, of “Golden Girls,” “Mama’s Family,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”).
They had thought they would be interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Bickerman, but as the old lady explains, she euthanized her husband some years ago. Your guess as to why she is not immediately arrested is as good as mine. Mrs. Bickerman turns out not to have witnessed the attack on Sheriff Hank’s Fish and Wildlife buddy, and to have nothing of value whatsoever to contribute to the investigation. Then, just when you thought you’d met all the annoying characters you could stand, along comes Dr. Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt, from Flatliners).
Dr. Cyr is a mythology professor at the university to which Kelly’s museum is attached. His life-long obsession is swimming with crocodiles, which he considers to have some sort of special link to the Godhead. Whatever. Kelly thinks the man is a fucking loon, and so do we the minute he first opens his mouth. So what in the hell brought Cyr to Black Lake? He’s decided that its diver-eating denizen is a crocodile, a hypothesis which, despite its obvious problems, would certainly be consistent with that severed moose head that Sheriff Hank finds at about this point. As the female Expendable Meat deputy says, “bears don’t bite the heads off mooses.” (More to the point, bears don’t bite the bodies off moose heads!)
Now that everybody has been introduced, it’s time to get down to the main point of the movie, which is watching the assembled assholes call each other ostensibly witty names. (Not watching crocodiles eat people, as you probably expected. Truth be told, very little of that goes on in this movie.) We have Kelly calling someone “Fuckshit.” Sheriff Hank calling Cyr a “Mento.” Cyr telling Hank that “maybe later, you can chew the bark off my big, fat log.” Actually, Cyr probably scores the most points in this particular game; after the “big, fat log” comment, I think my favorite catty remark comes when he and Hank are arguing over crocodiles’ capacity for trans-oceanic swimming. Hank is obviously skeptical, and Cyr retorts, “Oh, that’s right, they conceal information like that in books!” But let’s not disregard Mrs. Bickerman’s contributions. When was the last time you heard an old lady say, “If I had a dick, this is where I would tell you to suck it”? And the English-speaking world will doubtless be forever indebted to her for “Officer Fuckmeat.”
Now the old lady has plenty of reason to go around telling Sheriff Fuckmeat to suck her dick. You see, the thing in the lake, which really is a 30-foot crocodile (an Indo-Pacific crocodile, or so we are told), and Mrs. Bickerman considers it to be her pet. Hey, if I lived on a lake with a 30-foot crocodile, you bet your ass he’d be my pet too. The croc showed up about six years back (about the time Mrs. Bickerman “euthanized” her husband... hmmm...), and she has been feeding it from her small herd of livestock ever since. She has told no one because she rightly believed that anyone she did tell would just come on in with elephant guns and grenade launchers and kill the damn thing. Sheriff Fuckmeat places her under house arrest on several dubious grounds-- including cruelty to animals-- and the team’s hunt for the crocodile kicks into high gear, or at least it tries to. In fact, there’s a rather large impediment to intensifying the hunt, in that the team has by this time divided into two rigidly opposed camps. One (led by Jack Weller and Hank Fuckmeat) believes that the croc should simply be killed; they don’t believe the team has the means to trap it, and even if they did, what the hell does a person do with a 30-foot crocodile, anyway? The other (led by Cyr, with loud and frequent whines of support from Kelly) wants to capture it alive; Cyr rightly points out what an amazing thing it is to discover a crocodile of this magnitude anywhere, let alone Maine, and that in any event, killing an animal that must be at least 150 years old solely because its continued presence poses an inconvenience to a few humans (the most directly affected of whom wants it to stay) would be absolutely unconscionable. After a lot of arguing, Cyr prevails-- you have to admire the strength of a man’s convictions when he doesn’t change his mind even after he, his helicopter, and the female Expendable Meat deputy whom he has spent the whole movie trying to fuck are nearly eaten by the animal he wants to protect. The ensuing climax almost veers into big rubber monster territory, with all of its none-too-useful gunplay, its rematch between the crocodile and the helicopter (the croc wins decisively), and its last-minute deployment of a Special Super-Weapon (in this case, a 40mm grenade launcher). The climax also gives us the first of two (count ‘em, two!) It’s-not-over-yet-heh-heh-heh shots. And believe it or not, the resolution of this movie is really sort of surprising.
Now let’s talk for a bit about the crocodile itself. First of all, as a special effect, I think it works much better in the water, where it is usually represented by some sort of animatronic model. The land-going CGI crocodile isn’t nearly as good-- in particular, its movements are entirely unconvincing. Real crocodiles just don’t move like that; even at high speeds (which even very big ones can manage over short distances), their motions are heavier and somehow less precise-looking. The CGI effects just don’t convey any sense of the animal’s momentum, which, for a 30-foot crocodile, would be considerable indeed. On the other hand, the filmmakers are to be commended for their choice of crocodile species. The Indo-Pacific crocodile is the same species better known as the Australian saltwater croc, the breed that Steve Irwin used to make a living out of molesting on television before his unfortunate encounter with that stingray. Salties really can get nearly as big as the crocodile in this movie (anything over eighteen feet is considered large for the species, but 21-footers have been documented, and there have been unsubstantiated reports of salties reaching as much as 27 feet), they really are ocean-going (though not with anything like intercontinental range), and they can indeed be very dangerous to humans. Mind you, it’s an iffy proposition how long one could be expected to survive in New England’s climate, although they do range pretty far south into temperate waters along the Australian coast. (Remember, the temperature gradient goes the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere.) You could do a lot worse for a monster-movie crocodile, even if it would have made a lot more sense to set Lake Placid on the West Coast, so that the poor beastie would only have to cross one ocean to get to its adopted home.