Laelaps Movie of the Week: Lake Placid

Some movies, like the recently released cheese-fest Dragon Wars, are so utterly terrible that you can have a good time poking fun at everything that's wrong with them. Other films are downright painful to watch, and the killer-croc film Lake Placid falls into this latter category. Who would of thought that a monster film written and produced by David E. Kelly (creator of the show "Ally McBeal") and starring Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda could have turned out so terrible? Oh, wait...

As per killer-critter flick tradition, our opening scene features someone being attacked by a POV shot (that's what you get when you don't feed the camera crew). After being startled by a beaver puppet, a diver pops up out of the water screaming, dropping into a nearby boat and quickly discovers that he's "half the man he used to be." While Fish & Wildlife is the obvious choice to take care of a rogue critter problem, a tooth recovered from the first victim is sent off to the AMNH, where paleontologists apparently act and dress just like New York attorneys and work tirelessly on removing fiberglass fossil replicas from the hard matrix that they come shipped in (it's one thing to be realistic, but some skeleton replica companies just go overboard, I guess). Here we meet, (for lack of a better term) our heroine played by Bridget Fonda, who due to a tangled office love affair is dispatched to look at the tooth despite her protests that she doesn't belong in the field. From the moment she comes on screen her annoying, condescending attitude just makes me just want to shut the DVD player off, and while I suppose this is part of the point of her character, in the end I would have been much happier if the crocodile just consumed the majority of the cast. But I digress...

The first attack and all the following events take place at a lake in Maine, a lake that we're told has no people around for 25 miles except for an old woman (played by Betty White) that has a thing for big, scaly, toothy monsters. Trying to cash in on her previous "Golden Girl" fame, writer Kelly gives White a foul mouth in an attempt at shock comedy, but the whole time you just can't help but feel that Betty really doesn't mean it and would be much happier sitting down to have tea. Our motley crew of Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, and Brendan Gleeson (the only character I didn't want to strangle despite his preoccupation with people being sarcastic) receive little help from Betty, though, and run into another problem when Oliver Platt shows up to annoy the hell out of everyone for the remaining duration of the film. Perhaps writer Kelly thought that such an odd group, thrown together in adversity, would make for a compelling and funny romp set on the banks of a Maine lake, but all it accomplishes is making the viewer count the seconds until the croc shows up to (hopefully) thin out the cast. Such relief never comes, as the film's antagonist prefers deputies and cows hand-fed to it by Betty White, it's tastes (like that of the audience) being far too-refined to consider Oliver Platt even remotely palatable.

I really wish there was more to the movie than what I just described, but that's the primary plot; a 30 foot Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) starts munching on state employees and the disjointed cast runs around the lake sniping at each other and saying "Why is it here?" "Duh, I dunno, let's go swimming." Rather than coming up with a clever way that such a large animal could have wound up in Maine and survived the winters when everything freezes over, the creators of this film felt that it was best for the audience not to know, crocodiles swimming across the expanse of entire oceans and northward expansion of crocodylians being mentioned here and there without much more committal. In reality Saltwater Crocodiles, the largest of living crocodylians, are spread across the various islands of Indonesia, also being famously known from northern Australia and the eastern coast of India. They have even made it as far as Africa, and while these crocodiles are sometimes encountered out at sea in the Pacific I don't know of any instance in which one has swum clear across the Pacific to North America (nor would I expect one to take such a journey!).

As for size, "salties" have been known to grow in excess of 20 feet in length, continuing to grow throughout their lives (although growth slows at an earlier age and does not proceed at the same pace throughout the entire life of the animal). Given that the largest known individual seems to have been about 23 feet long, a 30 foot individual may not seem entirely out of the question, but this is the sort of fuzzy rounding-up that can create fictional creatures far more immense than what would be seen in life ("If 30 feet is reasonable, why not 50, and if 50, why not 100?" etc.). The average Saltwater Crocodile, though, is closer to 17 feet in length, still formidable by anyone's standards.

While I wouldn't necessarily expect the creators of this film to be aware of such facts, Oliver Platt's character is awfully preachy about obtaining extensive knowledge about crocs. Overall, though, the cast acts as if they're more comfortable gathered around the water cooler rather than on the trail of a killer creature. The paleontologist, for example, doesn't seem to be able to correctly make a plaster cast of a footprint and our eccentric crocodile expert says that they won't attack underwater because they can't see you when submerged. How anyone made it out alive, especially given that the cast seemed predisposed to wandering about at the water's edge, is due only to the grace of the filmmakers.

A note should be made about the special effects here, as well. Stan Winston, my all-time favorite creature effects creator, was behind the crocodile in this film, and it looks pretty good. While not nearly as impressive as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the aliens in ALIENS, the croc is above and beyond what one normally encounters in this caliber of cinema in its CGI or animatronic forms. Still, while Stan Winston's effects magic may provide brief respite from the horrible and annoying dialog, it does not save this film, which should have been relegated to the "Direct-to-Video" pile at best.

In the end, things go so awry that they work out, an attempt to capture the crocodile ending up with the beast tranquilized and trapped within the fuselage of a helicopter (you always have to have a helicopter in these movies because monsters just can't resist them), a visual epilogue during the credits showing us that it is being moved by flatbed truck to a holding tank somewhere for some reason that no one bothered to figure out. Indeed, while Bill Pullman wanted to put the creature down, he was moved by its "crocodile tears" and relented, although a smaller and more aggressive croc ended up as charred kibbles & bits (if the writers introduce heavy weaponry early in the movie you have to expect it's going to be used eventually). "Two crocodiles?" you ask. "Why is there more than one? Are they breeding?" The viewer is left with no choice but to think that there's a fertile population of Saltwater Crocodiles in the Maine lake from the last scene of Betty White throwing tidbits to hatchlings, and in turn this craptacular film has spawned its own terrible progeny. I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't check it out myself, but Lake Placid 2 (starring Cloris Leachman [?!!]) is coming out on video early next year. Somehow I get the feeling that it's not going to be an improvement over the 1st installment...

Best line in the movie;

"Is that a crime? To wish the chewing of law enforcement?"

Followed by (god help us);

Lake Placid 2

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For other painful movies in the pseudo-science genre, I would recommend "The Core" and that horrible movie about dragons that came our somewhere around 2003 (it had Matthew McConnaughy (?) and it was set in England, that's all I remember).

For movies you can poke fun at because they're so bad, but yet are not as painful, I recommend "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Sahara", both delightfully stupid and oh-so-easy to mock.

It's a campy creature feature, better than most, I think, in its own league. Personally, although the premise is...similar (big carnivores eating people) I prefer "Deep Blue Sea." Mostly because Janice from Sopranos gets killed in the first fifteen minutes, and GOD did I hate her character.

Before the movie came out, I was thinking "Deinosuchus". Never watched it before, thank goodness.

The possibility of crocodiles surviving Maine winters would be extremely fascinating, after all, I believe only the alligators are able to survive such chilly climates.

And er... someone said crocodiles won't attack underwater because they can't see when submerged? Right. There are so many reasons I would call bullshit on this one, but I won't bother. -_-

(Speaking of which, I do wonder if they engaged some crocodilian authority for 'consultation' on this film...)

The SciFi Channel has been showing crappy movies late at night. They are on at midnight Pacific time. You can tell just by looking at the cast list how bad the movie is going to be: if the only names you recognize are Lorenzo Lamas or Richard Grieco or one of their buddies or if you don't recognize any of the names, you can be sure that it will be bad. I just saw a movie the other night about a gigantic prehistoric rat that ate corpses in cemetaries that was terribly bad. In most of these movies there is the good-looking hero, his pretty girlfriend, and his dumb sidekick. The sidekick always gets eaten. The hero always wins, but the last frame of the movie always shows an egg or a hatchling just waiting for its own sequel.

Oh lord, I watched this without sound on an airplane one time. It's amazing how the craptaculatiousness of movies really comes out when you watch without sound. E.g. the scene with Betty White feeding the thing a cow: Head-on closeup shot of real crocodile, large but realistic size. Cut to long shot of fake special-effects crocodile lunging out of the water to devour an entire cow in one gulp! Somehow it tripled in length between those shots. Awesome!

Definitely the best part about watching it on the airplane came at the end, when the helicopter crashes into the lake. Shot of helicopter flying over lake, with cow as bait (I assume; remember I had no dialogue to help) dangling beneath it. Cut to shot of helicopter in water. I assume there was a shot of it going down in the original movie, but the airline edited that out because they were afraid the audience on the plane would be terrified by such an absurd plot device.

Shortly after that United stopped charging for headsets, but I continue to watch bad movies without the sound. They're much more fun that way.

By Johnny Vector (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink

Holy cow. Are you telling me this thing was NOT made for Sci-Fi, but actually got released into theaters? Well, now I don't feel so bad about watching it on tv not so very long ago... I too hoped they would all get eaten, and I cheered Betty White's character for raising several more. Perhaps if she trains them to work as a team, they can in fact eat everyone next time?

Foul-mouthed Betty was still the best part of the movie and wasn't on nearly long enough. Not that I'm defending this turkey but at least there were some decent production values at work. I can think of others that were a LOT worse. You do have to wonder how they were able to get a studio to spend the kind of money they obviously spent on it.

And to think I was so gauche -- I enjoyed this turkey. I think you spend too much time thinking big thoughts.

By degustibus (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

Lake Placid did really hurt to watch, there was so much stupid nonsense. One of the badest ideas of the producers was the creation of this self-proclaimed cryptozoologist. It makes no sense to bring a character everybody hates in the movie, if he doesn´t lose at least one limb. Oh I really hated this guy and wished so much he would finally get eaten.

Just for fun, I watched "LP 2" a few weeks ago (on Scifi, of course). It was excruciating, to say the least. Watching it was like intellectually cutting myself. For the love of the FSM, don't put yourself through it.