Lake Placid
directed by Steve Miner
(20th Century Fox, 1999)

The theme of nature gone wild has been used in countless movies and the plot -- something out there is big, bad and hungry -- has been used in films as varied as King Kong and Jaws. Hollywood isn't going to stop making these movies because they sell, so the question that remains is -- how well did they do it this time?

In Lake Placid, better than I expected -- although this movie is more comedy than horror.

The beastie this time is an Asian crocodile that turns up, against all odds, in a quiet Maine lake (named Black, not Placid). It makes itself known when a game warden goes poking around in the wrong beaver lodge. Soon, an anti-croc force is assembled on the shore: game warden Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) and, for no real reason beyond getting a leading lady on the scene, New York City paleontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda). They're joined by Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), a rich and eccentric professor with gobs of croc-finding gear and a kooky belief in the godhood of crocodiles.

When people aren't getting noshed (fewer than you might expect) or the camera isn't making moody passes through underwater murk, the film is actually quite funny, particularly in the antagonistic repartee between Hector and Hank. Sarcastic quips fly pretty much whenever any of the lead characters are on the screen, which keeps the atmosphere of the film fairly light.

Adding humor, too, is an unexpected turn by Betty White as Delores Bickerman, a foul-mouthed biddy living alone on the shore with a persistent fondness for man-eating reptiles.

Technically, a crocodile is much easier to film than most beasties -- they don't have particularly expressive faces and there's not much motion in the skin -- so I didn't come away too impressed with filmmakers' ability to make their monster look real. Some scenes -- in particular one involving a bear -- are visually impressive (although the bear's presence in the first place doesn't make much sense).

One puzzling thing is the team's inability to learn from mistakes, seemingly going to great lengths to make themselves attractive as bait. Pesky little details, such as how a 30-foot croc made it from Asia to Maine, are swept aside as inconsequential.

Lake Placid doesn't break any new ground. The plot is fairly predictable and most viewers will guess who will live and who will die without much trouble -- although, I'll admit, at least one name I expected to see on the menu made it through to the end. Still, it's engaging and fun, certainly worth 82 minutes of a day. (And the never-to-be-made sequel that it sets up, with a 30-foot croc rampaging through Portland, Me., earned a smile all on its own.)

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 22 February 2003

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