Compiling unofficial trilogies that contain unrelated movies is something my brain seems to do every now and then. Boasting connective tissue as thin as wet toilet paper, often the only thing holding the movies together is the genre or even the time period that it was made and the best example I can think of is what I’ve personally dubbed the self explanatory 90’s Killer Animal Comeback Trilogy (still work shopping that title by the way).
Started by the highly camp stylings of Anaconda in 1997 and finished two years later by the cartoonish muscle of the super-smart sharks of Deep Blue Sea, located in the middle of this snake & shark sandwich is Lake Placid, a killer crocodile movie that has a little extra bite than its stable mates thanks to a script that relies more on witty snark than tongue in cheek cheese.
On a seemingly normal day in Aroostook County, Maine, notoriously rumpled Sheriff Hank Keough has his shift ruined when the Fish & Game officer he’s accompanying is sheared in half at the waist while suba diving in Black Lake. Reporting this understandably alarming event, he’s eventually joined by a replacement Fish & Game officer, Jack Wells and paleontologist and New York city slicker Kelly Scott, who has been sent in from her museum against her will to try and identify the underwater predator stalking the area. Immediately rubbing Hank up the wrong way with their liberal usage of weaponized sarcasm, the trio are further joined by eccentric mythology professor and crackpot crocodile enthusiast, Hector Cyr, who sends the levels of sardonic one-liners into the stratosphere, but the four agree to barely get along in order to figure out what’s lurking in the lake.
It turns out that, somehow, a thirty foot saltwater crocodile has decided to make its home in Lake Black and fully intends to keep eating as many people as it wants unless something can be done to stop it. But exactly what can be done? Jack and Hank are in favour of killing the beast due to its size and ferocity, whereas Kelly and Hector want to try and capture it to preserve despite that authorities have never had to capture something that massive before.
But where in the blue hell did the thing come from in the first place? It seems the secret may lie with the unassuming form of foul mouthed widow Delores Bickerman, who lives alone on the lake and has been spotted leading blindfolded cows down to the water in order to give the monster croc the occasional treat.
As this dysfunctional group trade barbs sharper than the reptile’s teeth, can they possibly bring this creature in by the most humane way possible?
If you ever wondered what kind of creature feature you would get if one was written by someone not going for cheap thrills, then Lake Placid turns out to be the answer because the scribe behind this croc shocker is none other than David E. Kelley, creator of, among other things, Chicago Hope, Boston Legal and Ally McBeal. As result of this, Lake Placid chooses to avoid cheap scares and a hefty body count in favour of a character based comedy thriller that feels more akin to Ron Underwood’s Tremors than the fun 80’s schlock of, say, Alligator, and the results are actually a lot of fun. A main chunk of this is provided by the fact that everyone in the film – and I do mean everyone – has a sense of humour so acidic it could dissolve a concrete elephant in 25 seconds and despite their age or social standing, no one is above resorting to calling someone a fuckshit. It makes for a film with some cracking one liners and some devastating put downs that I’m surprised aren’t quoted more than they are.
While lead actor Bill Pullman is typically restrained as sort of the story’s straight man, Bridget Fonda goes full 90’s high maintenance as the outdoors hating paleontologist who has to endure the running gag of various detached heads being carelessly thrown her way – but it’s Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Platt who almost get all the best stuff to play with. The former, playing an epically curmudgeonly sheriff with a huge dislike of sarcasm, bristles wonderfully whenever he’s regularly targeted for a particularly scathing insult such as being asked to chew the bark off someone’s big fat log responds with a measured, “Was that like a homosexual remark?” – Oliver Platt as the latter, on the other hand, gets to go big as a part rich dude, part Steve Irwin type with zero social skills and who’s as quick with his mouth as he is with his wallet. However, both must kneel at the altar of the immortal Betty White, who’s extended cameo as the old bat who’s been feeding the gargantuan croc results in some moments that are pure gold. Behold as she off handily tells a lawman “If I had a dick, this is where I’d tell you to suck it.” before further referring to Hank by the endearing term “Officer Fuck Meat.”.
I’ve found that people don’t share my feelings for this film which, refreshingly, skips over a lot of the pulpy stuff these movies usually deal with and focuses not just on the characters but on making the rampant reptile behave like an actual animal and not a psychotic engine of toothy destruction. As a result, some might find the more sedate pace and low body count a bit boring while others may find the characters to be too dysfunctional to be entirely likeable (they’re admittedly barely a step above the Seinfeld gang when it comes to rancorous groups), but as someone who has sat through dozens and dozens of animal attack movies it’s just nice to find something with a different rhythm.
Director Steve Miner (Halloween H20) keeps things classy while Stan Winston’s animatronic croc is resplendent and is supported by CGI that still, just about holds up – and the film even chucks in some memorable shocks like the supersized aquatic sod exploding out of the water to eat a fucking bear, or an early gore gag where a pleasing victim is yanked to safety only to reveal that only half of them has been retrieved (admittedly nicked from 1997’s The Relic, who in turn nicked it from 80’s Italian slasher Stage Fright).
Somehow responsible for five direct to DVD sequels and even a spin off where a croc fights an Anaconda (none of which have a fraction of the original’s wit), Lake Placid’s legacy seems doomed to be forever tarnished, which is a real shame as the movie attempts to give us all the usual creature carnage, but on a slightly smarter scale.