Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Lake Placid (1999)

Dir. Steve Miner
Starring: Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson

A diver is bitten clean in half in Maine’s remote Black Lake. This provides the start for monster movie Lake Placid. A hapless band of 'experts' is drafted in to catch the creature responsible. This band comprises Brendan Gleeson’s bad-tempered local sheriff Hank, Department of Fish and Game agent Jack Wells (Bill Paxton), out-of-her-depth palaeontologist Kelly (Bridget Fonda) and the eccentric crocodile-worshipping millionaire Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt)l. And sure enough, they come to the conclusion that a thirty-foot crocodile lurks beneath the calm waters of Black Lake.

So far, so Jaws. But Lake Placid is not afraid to play up the laughs alongside the underwater menace. The dysfunctional interactions of the main quartet (and more than a couple of expert prat-falls) provide moments of humour to lighten the movie. There’s even a tacked-on romantic subplot. So for a horror movie, the film is actually not that, well, horrifying. There’s some suspense, there are a few moments of shock and peril, and there’s some gore, but all-in-all Lake Placid is actually pretty watchable. I certainly enjoyed it.

So what makes Lake Placid different to The Mist, my other Maine horror film? Well, as stated, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Mist had a po-faced insistence that it was a Serious Horror Movie. In comparison Lake Placid goes for the lighter touch. The lead characters are a gang of oddballs, sniping humorously at each other. Kelly is a fish out of water who seems to have never been out of the city before and has a thing about mosquitoes, ticks, worms, timber, and the wilds in general. Plus, she keeps getting heads thrown at her (“I will NOT calm down! This is the second time I’ve been hit with a severed head and I DON’T LIKE IT!”). Hank is a deadpan snarker, wearily trying to do his job without interruptions from other US agencies, hoity-toity big city types and lunatic millionaires. Plus, he keeps falling into snare traps (“I could probably cut him down but there’s this odd look of mayhem on his upside-down face.”). Hector is, by-and-large, a nutjob, a sort of mystical Austen Powers. And then you’ve got Betty White, America’s favourite grandma, last seen in Hard Rain, as sassy Dolores Bickerton – there’s nothing like hearing  venerable LOL (little old lady) calling people “cocksuckers” or “Officer Fuck-meat” to keep you amused. The friction between the outdoorsy locals and the academic city-folks provides a lot of the comedy. For instance, when Hank protests that he has never heard of a crocodile crossing an ocean Hector replies “Well, they conceal information like that in books.” Kelly says that she has never been to Maine before – “I have good hygiene. I’m not welcome.” The central premise is some very dark humour – a lady has been rearing giant crocs out in the backwoods). The film knows that the source material is somewhat hokey too – witness the moment the 30-foot killer croc attacks Hector’s helicopter. It plays on B-movie tropes. Hell, it’s practically an homage to Jaws. If only someone had uttered the immortal lines “We’re gonna need a bigger chopper…”

Croc vs Copter:
"We're gonna need a bigger chopper..."

Yet, for all that, the nature of the threat is known. A giant crocodile in a Maine lake might be unexpected, but we are not talking about tentacular beasties from another dimension. The goals of the team can be understood at once: find out what killed the diver, locate it, neutralise it. And whatever the creature is, it has to be trapped in the vicinity of the lake.
The action keeps moving. The film is only 75 minutes long (a relief compared to most movies I have been watching, which seem to be two hours minimum). It goes for thrills and spills more than suspense (and the addition of a soundtrack helps to create suspense in the scenes that need it). It remembers that its aim is to entertain the audience, something which The Mist was at times in danger of forgetting I feel.
What have I learnt about Maine?
It really is seen as another world to city-dwellers. Kelly, with her fly-spray and her worries about Deliverance, does not ‘get’ the delights of the wild backwoods. Nor do Hank and Jack have much sympathy towards urbanites.
To be fair the rolling hills cloaked in mile after mile of forest are wholly different to anything one might see in NYC. So is the wildlife. We see Maine’s mosquitoes, beavers, moose, bears and crocodiles (though strictly speaking, that last one shouldn’t have been there).
Can we go there?
Black Lake is fictional, and it’s hard to figure out precisely where it’s supposed to be. It’s in Maine’s largest, northern county, Aroostook, some twenty-five miles from the nearest town, but only a mile from the ocean?
It seems unlikely that Asian-Pacific crocodiles could have migrated to the Atlantic side of America. The film wasn’t even shot on that side of the continent however. It was filmed in Canada’s British Columbia at three separate lakes: Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island, Lake Hayward, near Mission, 60km east of Vancouver, and Buntzen Lake in Anmore. Highlander and Freddy vs. Jason were also shot at Buntzen Lake, with Roxanne being filmed nearby.
Overall Rating: 3/5

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