An investigative team, armed with state-of-the-art equipment, high-powered weaponry and a biting sense of sarcasm, must work together to defeat Black Lake's most ferocious resident: a 30-foot prehistoric crocodile! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
1999 was a watershed year for American films, anchored by incendiary, challenging, and weird movies, like The Wachowski’s The Matrix, Alexander Payne’s Election, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. But it was also a good year for more mainstream entertainment, including animation (Toy Story, The Iron Giant), thrillers (The Sixth Sense), horror movies (The Blair Witch Project), and, pertinent to this review, eco-horror monster movies. Steve Miner’s giant crocodile movie comedy, Lake Placid, and Renny Harlin’s smart shark action flick, Deep Blue Sea, were released within two weeks of each other, making July of 1999 an especially expedient month to be a fan of bloody and sardonic critter movies. Personally, I preferred the slightly more straight-faced and over-the-top approach of Harlin’s film, but Lake Placid has a punchy, easygoing charm that characterizes late-era pre-millennial horror-comedy.
Taken on the merits of a stand-alone film and contained within the greater horror-comedy and eco-horror pantheons, Lake Placid is inescapably mediocre. Miner is an old hand at slick B-movie, his career predating even Harlin’s. He started working under Sean S. Cunningham, which eventually scored him the lead direction roles on the first two Friday the 13th sequels (1981, 1982) and House (1986). Following years of made-for-TV movies and some underseen feel-good family films (1991’s Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, 1992’s Forever Young, 1994’s My Father the Hero), he was hired to recreate the feel of Wes Craven’s Scream movies (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011) for 1998’s Halloween: H20 (appropriate, since he was Craven’s production assistant on Last House on the Left, 1972). Unfortunately for him, Lake Placid’s real architect was producer and writer David E. Kelley, who was cashing in his Ally McBeal chips for a chance to jump genres on the big screen. Kelley was creator or co-creator of some of the ‘90s biggest prime time hits, including Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989), Chicago Hope (1994), and The Practice (1996), none of which inspired confidence that he could handle a fusion of horror and comedy. The closest thing on his lawyer and doctor story-heavy C.V. was 1992’s Picket Fences, which was made in part to fill a weirdo suburbia void left by the departing Twin Peaks (1990), but that’s still a pretty big leap.
Kelley’s perpetual tongue-in-cheek tone never really jibes with Miner’s attempts at genuine sense or menace. The director delivers plenty of monster mayhem and a multitude of jump-scares, but they’re constantly tempered by the script’s tone. Even the most foolproof set-pieces falls flat thanks to incessant smugness, all of the characters are hopelessly unlikable, and, on top of everything else, the movie kind of just ends as it’s getting itself going. One good side effect was that the mirthful spirit kept the late-‘90s MPAA from tagging the film with an NC-17 and forcing the filmmakers to censor themselves. Complaints aside, Lake Placid’s mediocrity isn’t exactly frustrating. To the contrary, it’s a very easygoing movie, one that stokes nostalgic now that it’s two decades old. There was actually a time when a major studio excitedly put money into a monster movie written and produced by the creator of Ally McBeal, itself a show that encapsulates the completely alien pop-culture fads of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s. At the very least, Lake Placid is exactly the monster movie you’d expect from David E. Kelley.
Stateside, Lake Placid lovers have had only a non-anamorphic DVD to enjoy since the film was first released on home video. There was an option to import anamorphic discs from a multitude of other countries, but no local, widescreen-enhanced discs were available. If it's any consolation, Scream Factory’s 2.35:1, 1080p Blu-ray is the first HD version available in the world, so those US fans finally get something to brag about. This is an occasionally more grainy transfer than I was expecting, based on the film’s age, but the filmic look fits it well and doesn’t interfere with too many of the sharper details. The green, soupy underwater images are expectedly murky, creating some minor bouts of rough-edged banding effects. Close-up details are tight during daylight and nighttime scenes without any notable edge-enhancement. Wide-angle images, like the helicopter shots of the titular lake and surrounding area, are a little soft, but still quite lively. Colors are vivid and lean a bit warm to accentuate the sunny qualities of the area and punching up the lush greens. There’s a hint of blocking in some of the more subtle gradations and slight muddying of some of those softer background images.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a nice upgrade over the old DVDs as well, though less than the video’s improvements. The film’s sound design is less lively than some similar movies, but features plenty of immersive qualities. The underwater scenes are the busiest and most creatively mixed, including lots of multi-channel sloshing and bubbling. So much of the film takes place in the forest along the lake that lapping waves, chirping birds, and buzzing bugs set the stereo and surround speakers alight beneath the well-centered dialogue. Other highlights include helicopter escapes and a couple of gun-heavy sequences. John Ottman’s score is brassy and fun, even if it’s a little goofy when called upon for cutesy romantic undertones. My only complaint is that the musical cues and creature noises are a bit too loud and some of the dialogue is often a smidge too quiet (especially when characters are mumbling improvised lines).
The Making of Lake Placid (31:20, HD) – An all-new series of interviews with director Steve Miner, actor Bill Pullman, director of photography Daryn Okada, editor Marshall Harvey, production designer John Willett, effects supervisor Nick Marra and puppeteer Toby Lindala.
Vintage behind-the-scenes featurette (5:40, SD) – Including interviews with actors Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Brendon Gleason, Bette White, and Miner
Behind-the-scenes still gallery
Animatronic croc test footage (New, 1:30, SD)
The images on this page are taken from the BDs and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.