20 years ago, in the magical summer of 1999, two, life-changingly brilliant creature features were released within just 12 days of each other; Deep Blue Sea, of which I am the unofficial, lifelong public defender, and Lake Placid. Although the latter is arguably less beloved, and sadly does not feature a ranting Samuel L. Jackson, it deserves the same level of acclaim for many of the same reasons. It’s funny, scary, boasts an impressively high-caliber cast, all of whom are in on the joke, and crucially manages to get the job done in almost half the time of Deep Blue Sea.
Lake Placid clocks in at less than 90 minutes which, aside from making it the ideal How Did This Get Made? contender, means there’s not a second to waste. The script, credited to David E. Kelley, is sharper than you likely remember it being. Setting the scene immediately with a gruesome crocodile kill (though the beast is barely glimpsed aside from some gnarly chomping teeth effects) before introducing Bridget Fonda’s hilarious city girl paleontologist (“MAINE!?” she exclaims, as though she’s being shipped off to the wilds of West Virginia), picking her up, and dropping her right back at the lake from whence we came.
Most of Lake Placid takes place at the lake itself, though it’s not called that, without any momentum-sapping flashbacks to the city or whatever. The movie strands its collection of characters, all with wildly different personalities, lakeside and gives them plenty of room to breathe, bicker, and tussle with the killer croc. It’s an ingeniously simple setup that allows the film’s biggest strengths to flourish. Rather than trying to paper over the cracks, Kelley and director Steve Miner (who helmed Halloween H20 the year previous to this) face them head on.
First and foremost, Kelly admits she’s only sticking around because going back to the city would mean facing her cheating boyfriend/boss. Fonda is really terrific here, sniping and flirting with Bill Pullman’s dishy wildlife officer, pissing Brendan Gleeson’s Sheriff Keogh (no relation) off and defending Oliver Platt’s rich loon Hector (so cool he gets his own theme music) as a fellow croc enthusiast. This is a truly brilliant cast, not a weak link among them, and everybody plays it straight so there are no smug too-good-for-this-madness attitudes to contend with.
Fonda’s Kelly is terrified of everything, to a hilarious extent. She consistently gets thrown into the water or has severed heads land at her feet, so much so that Kelly actually complains about it at one point (confirming, once again, the filmmakers are in on the joke). Her blossoming romance with Pullman’s Dewey Riley-esque Jack is subtly hinted at throughout, but the two never even kiss because, well, this isn’t their story. In keeping with the best creature features, Lake Placid‘s human characters are great but it’s the croc we really care about.
The money shot is wisely kept for as long as possible, but when the beast is finally seen in all its glory, FX by maestro Stan Winston ensure it looks as real as possible, and completely terrifying too (that face-off with Hector in the water is an all-timer). The CG, when the thing needs to move, hasn’t aged terribly either. It’s worth noting, too, that the VFX actually got worse as the series went on (I’ve watched all of them, unfortunately — and you should definitely not). Plenty of fun is had tossing characters into the water, showing their legs dangling, or with the camera following them as they swim slowly through the murk. Shooting on location at an actual lake really helps everything feel more tactile, particularly in the water which never screams “this is a tank!” with its clarity.
Early on, there’s a great beaver scare (like a cat scare, but furrier) that establishes the movie’s darkly comic tone. It’s quickly followed up by the first gory kill, which sees the Sheriff pulling just a dude’s torso out of the water (later, Hector will hold up a severed toe and ask him, “Is this the man that was killed,” to which Keogh responds, “He seemed…taller“). Another kill later sees a head being bitten clean off a deputy who’s nonchalantly leaning over the lake.
The tagline for Lake Placid is “Part mystery. Part thriller. Parts missing,” (I can’t decide whether that’s brilliant or terrible), which again hints at the movie’s sharply funny comedic elements. The film is neither too smart for its own good like Deep Blue Sea nor as dumb as every sequel that followed it; it’s actually funny and genuinely scary too, or at least tense enough to qualify as a proper horror-comedy. There’s also the small matter of Betty White who, when she’s first introduced, enthusiastically tells everyone she killed her husband.
Lake Placid is relatively low stakes. It’s all about safely trapping the croc so it can be studied and trying not to get too many people killed in the process. There’s an ideological split between Kelly and Hector, scientists who believe in properly caring for animals, and Keogh and Jack, who believe in protecting the community at any cost. Part of the fun of the movie is watching these disparate groups coming together and finding common ground, culminating in the brilliant final shot of the grumpy croc (presumably Winston’s massive animatronic creation) being transported on a truck to Portland.
Also, Betty White is feeding the next generation, which is a fun little nod. Most movies struggle to send viewers home with one truly memorable final shot — Lake Placid manages two.
Let’s not mince words here; Lake Placid is a nutty film. For one thing, our greatest export Brendan Gleeson appears to have attended the Aidan Gillen school of fake accents because he does this weird Irish-American hybrid thing throughout. For another, Maine seems rather lovely, not rural (possibly because it’s really Canada). Also, you know, the croc doesn’t swim very fast and stuff like that. But hell, it’s a damn good time and two decades later it really hasn’t aged much at all. The premise also makes a hell of a lot more sense than Shark Lake and the creature looks bloody brilliant, particularly in close-ups when we get to see Winston’s incomparable work in all its glory.
Back in 1999, my mother refused to watch Lake Placid with me and instead we went to see Kevin and Perry Go Large which, if you’re not familiar with it (and I hope you’re not because it’s one of the worst things ever — and not just in film), is the most horrifying movie imaginable to watch with your mom. I’m sure she’s regretted that decision ever since. If you’ve avoided Lake Placid because of how it was savaged upon release, or its close proximity to the brilliant Deep Blue Sea, now is definitely the time to revisit this fun, funny, and surprisingly well-crafted little creature feature. If nothing else, it’s only 82 minutes long so what have you really got to lose? Aside from various body parts, of course (I’m sorry).