Lake Placid (1999)

When Lake Placid was released, it was universally savaged by critics who disliked its sarcastic cast of characters and complained that the man-eating crocodile plot was silly. I can only assume that there wasn't much to complain about at that time, because the film is actually quite an enjoyable example of the killer beast sub-genre. Compare it to recent horror dreck like Soul Survivors or fellow critter movie Anaconda, and Lake Placid positively sparkles. The cast is excellent (Bill Pullman does his usual Invisible Man routine, Oliver Platt is the asshole he was born to play), the dialogue is interesting (if not as funny as it wants to be), and the crocodile, brought to life by the good old-fashioned practical effects of Stan Winston, is thoroughly convincing.

Brendan Gleeson is arguably the hero in this ensemble film; he plays Sheriff Keough, the small-town lawman saddled with small-town duties like escorting the local wildlife researcher on a trip to tag beaver. When the diver returns from his swim without the lower half of his body, the rest of the cast arrives to investigate. Bridget Fonda is a paleontologist who travels to Maine to escape an awkward office situation. Bill Pullman is the only man who can play a Fish and Wildlife official with the same demeanor as he played the President of the United States in Independence Day. Oliver Platt shows up somewhat later to regale us as the "eccentric" millionaire "mythology professor" with a penchant for swimming with crocodiles.

There is indeed a crocodile in the lake, and a big one. Bigger than anyone thought, apparently, or else they wouldn't be paddling around in canoes. There is a bit of horror-movie-victim stupidity going on in the film, although not so much as to be distracting. The science is a lot better than other films of its type. Sure, it's a thirty-foot Asian crocodile in Maine, but at least it's not defying the laws of gravity as the snakes do in Anaconda. The most grievous error committed is the appearance of an Alaskan brown bear completely out of its element in Maine, but the payoff to the bear's cameo is well worth the ignoring the improbability that it would be there in the first place.

That's probably the reason I enjoyed Lake Placid as much as I did: after being subjected to inummerable impossible things in other movies with no reward, I was grateful to these filmmakers for showing me something I had never seen before and making it look good. Director Steve Miner and writer David E. Kelley (each responsible for some absolute dreck on television) never let me get bored, either: the characters bicker, but they bicker amusingly, which fills in the gaps between crocodile attacks. (See in particular the sequence where Platt's character waxes poetic about crocodiles before Fonda tells him to cut the crap. He complies amiably.) Much has been made by other critics of the foul-mouthed character played by Betty White, but I was relieved that her character never overstayed her welcome.

It's a bit odd to see a film made so recently look so obviously transferred from a film print; the opening credits have telltale scratches and specks. Still, it all looks pretty good, and that's a wonder, as much of the action takes place underwater where things could easily get too dark or too murky. The sound is a nice Dolby 5.1. The menus are fairly easy to navigate (see below) and the subtitles are mostly off the image in the lower portion of the letterbox area.

There are a number of extras on the disc, although most of them are unremarkable: a theatrical trailer, some TV spots, and some fairly lengthy cast and crew biographies. The bios are presented on screen in tiny type, and when you get to the second screen of information, it's not immediately obvious how to get back to the first. Also included is a forgettable featurette that unfortunately spoils a lot of the film's better moments. As usual with DVD extras, watch the movie first.

Chris Holland, 7/11/2002