JULY 4, 2014
I only saw Lake Placid once, during its theatrical run in the summer of 1999. My strongest recollection of the experience was that I had to see it at Chunky's, which was sort of like an Alamo Drafthouse in that you order food (and drink, though I was 2 years away from being able to take advantage) that's brought to you while the movie is on, but instead of a stadium theater it was a regular level one, meaning the waitresses would block your view of the screen as they came and went - I didn't go to it very often. However, our local theater chain had some beef with FOX at the time, so it was Chunky's or nothing for a lot of their mid-level releases (big stuff like Phantom Menace would play, but this, Ravenous, Office Space, etc - all MIA).
I also remember not thinking much of it; like Steve Miner's previous movie (H20) it felt like it was missing a giant chunk of its middle - there's a lot of setup and then a quick finale. Also it seemed strangely deserted; in H20 it at least had some excuse (the camping trip, though given the permission slip aspect I would think there'd be more forgetful kids or ones with strict parents that had to stay behind), but in Placid it's bizarre how rare you see anyone beyond the handful of main characters. I mean, it HAD to have been pitched as "Jaws but with a crocodile!" but there's no "close the beaches" or even an evil human character around - the one guy who was scuba diving in the movie's opening sequence seems to be the only guy who ever wanted to go in the lake. So the rest of the movie is a bunch of folks trying to kill/capture this thing, but WHY? What will be prevented?
But while it doesn't quite work as a monster movie (though Miner thankfully used an animatronic croc for the most part, keeping CGI to a minimum), it's a solid character comedy, courtesy of a script by (of all people) David E. Kelley. Anti-spoiler ahead - none of our four leads get killed, which is great as it allows for a minor, not too generic romance to blossom between Bill Pullman and Bridget Fonda (who seriously needs to return to movies - she's too damn beautiful and charming to waste), as well as a lot of fun antagonistic banter between Oliver Platt and Brendan Gleeson. Some of it is clearly inspired by Quint/Hooper, but it doesn't matter - I would happily watch a TV show of the two of these guys as mismatched partners (Ryan from Shock suggested one where they investigate cryptozoological happenings - SOLD!). It's legitimately sweet when Gleeson is the first to dive into the water to save Platt when he's in danger during the climax, considering how much they hated each other in the earlier parts of the movie.
Back to Jaws, another thing that works in the movie's favor is how they split the three character types (Brody, Hooper, Quint) among four people, making it seem less like a ripoff. There's a bit of Brody in both Pullman and Gleeson, there's a bit of Hooper in Platt and Fonda, and Quint's stuff is split between Platt and Gleeson. So not only do they seem less generic, it also makes it harder to guess who will die - if I hadn't spoiled it (sorry) you'd spend the entire movie thinking that either Platt or Gleeson would die for sure, but which one? So you get slightly more suspense than you do from the average Syfy monster movie (a sub-genre which, somewhat ironically, now includes three sequels to this), but also a full quartet of people you genuinely like in an era where making even ONE likable protagonist seemed to be too hard for some filmmakers.
And that brings me to my main criticism - why is this an R rated movie? There's a nice gore bit on that first kill, but the second (there are only two human deaths, though the croc takes a few animals down) is played almost as a ZAZ type gag, and probably wouldn't have gotten the movie an R on its own. Instead, the bulk of the R rating comes from F-bombs, but in this kind of movie (and with these kind of characters) they're not "necessary" for lack of a better word. Many of them are played for shock value, courtesy of Betty White - at the time (1999) it wasn't a cliche to have her show up and say naughty things, so I guess it's fine. Still, if you were sorting your monster movies, you would expect to see this movie alongside the tonally similar (but PG-13) Tremors and Arachnophobia - not other R rated monster flicks like Deep Blue Sea and The Relic.
But while the breezy tone and engaging characters make up for the lack of action, I can't quite forgive the repetition of the plot - the movie is basically our heroes going out into the water, having a death-free encounter, regrouping, then going back out with a new tracker toy or weapon and repeating the cycle. Again since there's no one in the damn water besides these people, it makes the movie feel stakes-free, something that could have been prevented if they changed the scenery or didn't go out in the water so quickly into the narrative (and/or stayed there once they did). Granted, Kelley isn't exactly the first guy you'd think of to plot a horror film, but Miner's been around long enough to know better.
However it wouldn't have three sequels without its fans, and despite only being half as old as their usual fare, Scream Factory has put together a pretty nice special edition for the movie's Blu-ray debut. There's no commentary, but they got Miner (and Pullman, and some other crew folk) to contribute new interviews for a fun 30 minute retrospective. Miner wouldn't contribute to any of the newer Friday the 13th retrospectives, so getting him is a nice little bonus, and editor Marshall Harvey is always fun to listen to. Then there's a (VHS?) collection of behind the scenes footage from working with the animatronic croc, a vintage featurette, and the usual trailers and TV spots, including one where a critic claims it's "This year's Anaconda!" (apparently in 1999 this would be considered a rave?). The transfer is fine; nothing that will blow your mind, but not over-DNR'd like some other Fox releases, and respectable color/detail.
At 82 minutes and without any memorable deaths (this was released only a couple weeks before Deep Blue Sea, which contains the greatest Sam Jackson exit in history - and there are a lot to choose from), Lake Placid doesn't really have much weight to it - it's not BAD at all, but it just doesn't give you much to chew on (pun acknowledged and apologized for). Fans of it will be happy with this release, but it's hard to justify a blind buy for a movie you probably won't revisit. I'd say rent it but you guys killed the idea of video stores, so I dunno what to tell you. Maybe if Scream can get a hold of the Buffy movie (also never properly respected on disc) they can do a "FOX horror/comedy double feature" release that will be more enticing at a cost?
What say you?