Monday, October 17, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 12: Lake Placid (1999)

At the time this is posted, I will be quickly barreling towards 33 years of age--assuming the results of this year's election don't cause my head to explode, at any rate. The curious thing about being on the cusp of 33 is that, aside from the occasional painful physical reminders, I honestly don't usually feel my age. However, there is one area in which I absolutely feel my age: revisiting a film I once loved but have not watched in years.

It doesn't even have to be very many years between the time I last watched it and watching it as a more "mature" individual. After all, the movies I loved in high school aren't that different from the films I loved well into my twenties.

As I've said before, however, tastes change. Things I thought were brilliant at 15, 19, or even 27 now make me cringe.

I held that in the back of mind going into Lake Placid for this review. When I first rented it as a high schooler, I loved the damn thing even though it had some serious flaws here and there. (Like, you know, its entire concept, but we'll get to that) In my defense, it's not as if there was a massive amount of genuinely good killer crocodilian films to choose from, so it probably seemed that much better for not being a steaming pile of shit.

There is something to be said, as well, for the fact that it takes an unusual approach with its ending for this sort of movie.

We open on Black Lake in Aroostook County, Maine. Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) finds himself tasked with escorting a Fish and Game officer out to tag beaver. Keough resents this task, since the man is a condescending dick, but at least he gets to stay in the boat while the man goes scuba diving. In a laughable false scare, the diver is startled by a patently fake beaver exiting its dam. However, when the diver sticks his head into the dam to find the baby beavers, a roving POV cam sneaks up on him and he finds himself dragged back under the water.

So Keough gets a rude surprise when the screaming diver is dragged across the surface of the lake like Bruce the shark got hold of him. Keough tries to pull the man into the boat, despite the best efforts of the reptilian teeth we see flashing under the water, and ultimately he succeeds. Well, at least, he pulls most of the guy into the boat--he's missing everything below the waist and he quickly expires.

"Damn, this fish is too small for my Tinder profile pic. Better throw him back."
His troubles are over, for we're about to be reminded of the fact that this movie was written by David E. Kelley in a big way. Now we are introduced to paleontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) as she is at work in whatever museum in New York that she works for. Unfortunately, she's also been dating her boss, Kevin (Adam Arkin) and he has decided to end things. When her friend and colleague, Myra Okuba (Mariska Hargitay, who might be embarrassed about her brief role here if she hadn't made her screen debut in Ghoulies), comes to comfort her, Kelly finds out that this entire museum shits where it eats because Kevin broke up with her to date Myra because they used to date.

We return to the part of the film we give a crap about as Fish and Game officer Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) arrives on the scene where Keough has brought the dead body of the diver ashore. After Jack makes a joke about the diver having been eaten by a beaver, which just totally delights Keough since he loathes sarcasm. However, there's no denying that something bit the guy in half and bears aren't known for underwater ambushes. They're going to need an expert.

For no apparent reason, the expert they call for ends up being a paleontologist. Kevin comes to Kelly, who is not happy to see him, and tells her that since a man was killed in Maine and a fragment of a tooth was found in his body that looked like a dinosaur. Kevin wants Kelly to go there, despite the fact that she is adamant that she doesn't do field work. Now, my knowledge of paleontology essentially extends to knowing the names of a lot of dinosaurs and having spoken to Dr. Robert Bakker a few times. (I once gave him a lizard, too) Even so, I'm pretty skeptical that paleontology is a field you go into if you don't like field work.

Well, Kelly--not unreasonably--assumes that this is a bullshit excuse to get her out of the way so Kevin and Myra can boink without it being weird. However, her refusal to go doesn't work and she finds herself in Maine, going with Keough to the morgue. Keough is skeptical of her even being there--and her constant rude condescension to the small town sheriff doesn't exactly ingratiate her to him. However, she does end up examining the tooth after getting over her reluctance to enter the morgue. It's definitely reptilian and not a fossil, which I'm pretty sure anyone who wasn't a paleontologist could have figured out just as easily. She also decides she needs to see the body, which doesn't really seem necessary to me but it does amusingly show us that the prop corpse is missing way more of his torso than what we saw in the initial attack.

Keough introduces Kelly to the huge custom gun he's bringing along on their expedition and then introduces her to Jack, who instantly tries to tell her she can't come along. This scene is fascinating because it's played both as Jack actually being a chauvinist who's denying a powerful woman can handle herself in a dangerous situation and as Kelly imagining he's being a sexist jerk and ignoring the fact she has no clue what the fuck she's doing. Keough demurs ebcause Jack is in charge of the operation, so it's his call ultimately. Even though I'm not entirely sure Fish & Wildlife department would supersede the sheriff's authority in this case.

At any rate I'm with Keogh in this point, since I don't like either Kelly or Jack. Well, I'm with him until the point when Keough makes a sexist joke about forgetting "feminine napkins" at Kelly's expense--which doesn't even make sense, apart from being weirdly outdated terminology, because Keough will later be shown to have a female deputy. Is it too much to ask to have a lead who isn't a jerk for no reason?

"I'm sorry, Kelly, but if you come along, you're going to have prettier hair than Jack and he can't have that."
Kelly eventually gets her way, even as she expresses shock that the camp will be in the wild and require tents. (She hates the wilderness. WE GET IT ALREADY!) She's even less pleased when Keough sees something in the water on the way and it turns out to be a severed moose head, which he accidentally tosses at Kelly's feet--which causes her to slap him and him to almost murder her.

Oh, during the trip to the camp we also find out why the damn movie is named Lake Placid when it's set in Maine: Kelly observes that the lake is so still and Keough advises, "They wanted to name it Lake Placid, but apparently that was already taken."

On the way they stop to visit the only people living right on the lake near where the attack occurred, an old couple named Bickerman. However, despite there being no record of her husband's death, only Mrs. Delores Bickerman (Betty White) is there to offer them tea and she insists it's because her husband died two years ago. Oddly, when she insists it's because she killed him after he begged her to euthanize him, the others just react by writing this off as her being delusional instead of confessing to murder.

At the camp, Kelly is relieved to see the one female deputy, Deputy Sharon Gare (Meredith Salenger). She oddly asks her if the men get all horny, like in Deliverance, when they're all in the woods--which seems like a drastic misreading of Deliverance to me. Jack continues to wonder why Kelly is there, but it quickly becomes a moot point when a helicopter painted with scales arrives. Kelly recognizes the helicopter immediately and explains that its occupant is Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), an independently wealthy mythology professor the museum has worked with in the past, and spends his off hours traveling the world to swim with crocodiles. Kelly realizes this means that Hector must think they have a crocodile in the lake.

Jack and Keough are understandably skeptical, especially when Hector joins them and proves to be the sort of asshole who just says whatever he feels like at any time and often for no reason. He quickly tries to talk them into going out in canoes to search for evidence, and since he brought a lot of fancy equipment along, Jack ends up going along with it. As they search the lake, Hector randomly claims he had sex with Kelly and then, after insulting the man's weight and intelligence, Hector explains to Keough that a crocodile could survive in New England during the winter so long as its nostrils didn't freeze.

Well, he's half right, since alligators can survive being frozen in that manner. Most crocodiles, however, tend to die in temperatures barely above freezing. Yet at no point is it suggested by anyone that it could be an alligator, despite that being far more likely.

As a further aside, one of the most curious aspects of the film is that Hector spends a lot of his time making fat jokes at Keough's expense, but Oliver Platt and Brendan Gleeson appear to have almost identical body types. I mean, I suppose somebody thought that would make it less awful than a skinny actor saying it, but that implies anybody involved in this film cared if they hurt fat people's feelings. I suspect Hector was originally written with a skinnier actor in mind, frankly.

At any rate, the unseen animal disturbs some perch and then flips the canoe with Kelly and Keough in it. However, it was apparently only curious and not hungry as it allows them to escape unharmed. Kelly attempts to call in Florida Fish & Game, who would have more experience dealing with a large crocodilian, but they don't buy her story since there's not enough evidence. And then Deputy Gare finds a human toe, which the film assures us has been swallowed and partially digested despite it being mostly intact and most definitely not sitting in a pile of crocodile feces. I guess the crocodile puked it up?

"So...this is the script, huh?"
That night, Hector throws a loud party in his tent with the deputies and fish and game officers, which he explains to Keough is to try and lure the crocodile onto land so it will fall into one of his many traps that he's set up. This includes pit traps and counterweight snares, I might add, despite the fact that they are clearly dealing with a large crocodile that would probably weigh close to a ton. (Of course, they don't yet know it will be larger than any crocodile ever recorded and would thus weigh even more) Hector is also trying to get it on with Gare and she seems game for it, despite his come on being to say that she has "such big, wonderful boobs." Keough cancels the party and tells Hector that he thinks the man is a mental case.

Keough's opinion of Hector lowers even more after the two have a run in later that night because Hector was sneaking around setting traps when Keough went to take a leak. Keough also falls in one of the traps after the altercation.

In the morning, Jack, Hector, Kelly, Keough, and a deputy go out in a boat carrying a speaker that plays the sounds of a distressed crocodile hatchling. Since adult crocodiles will move on the sound of a hatchling in trouble, this is how they intend to lure it in. Of course, Keough is confused because Jack and Hector are preapring to go diving while setting up the lure. Hector advises that crocodiles don't attack underwater because they don't see very well, due to the nictitating membrane on their eyes. Keough points out that the very first victim in the movie was attacked underwater, but Hector says your safest bet when attacked by a crocodile is to submerge.

This is all bullshit, of course. The nictitating membrane on a crocodile's eye is there to allow them to see underwater. It's true, they usually don't attack prey while fully submerged, but not because they can't and especially not because they can't see.

Down below the water, Jack and Hector find the rest of the moose which has been...gutted. That's not even remotely what a crocodile kill would look like. I also feel the need to point out that there is not single underwater shot in this film where it is not painfully obvious that it was shot in a studio tank. Moving on. Jack gets separated from Hector after he sees a crocodile tail disappearing around an underwater stump and goes to investigate. Up top, something grabs the anchor and drags the boat several yards--which knocks Kelly into the water. However, despite all the suspenseful build-up, when Keough and the deputy pull her up into the boat, the bubbles coming up underneath her belonged to Jack.

Hector comes up a short ways away and everyone is too distracted helping him in, that they barely pay attention to the deputy that Keough ordered to reel in the speaker. That's too bad for the deputy, because after a big splash, he's suddenly missing his head.

In the aftermath on shore, Hector attempts to comfort Keough and it goes poorly--especially when Keough proves that Hector's spring traps are more ideal for trapping sheriffs than crocodiles. After Jack, Kelly, and Hector get Keough down, the enraged sheriff grabs a thick branch and chases Hector to the edge of the lake. Jack and Kelly try to intervene, but then a brown bear comes barreling out of the forest. (Presumably it escaped from the same zoo that the crocodile did, since you're about as likely to find a brown bear in Maine as a crocodile) At any rate, the bear in is interrupted in its threat display by the crocodile lunging out of the lake and dragging it into the water after less of a fight than the croc had with the diver.

"No, wait, we can share the humans! We could be a team!"
Well, that settles the matter: it's definitely a crocodile and one 30 feet in length, at that. Kelly identifies it as a saltwater crocodile, though those go by so many names it's not shocking that the film calls it an "Asian Pacific crocodile" and somewhat incorrectly identifies it as being an Asian species. While they can be found in the Southernmost regions of Asia, their habitat is scattered all over South Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, and most prolifically in Australia.

After the group discusses what to do around a fire, Keough and Hector literally get in a fight--though it's just confined to Keough punching Hector because Hector claimed he knew karate--and then somehow end up in the same tent to watch videos of Nile crocodiles eating wildebeest. Hector has no idea how the crocodile got to Maine or why it's here, but he thinks its size is a result of it just being very old (he later says it's "150-years-old" as if he knows it for a fact, but he has no evidence for that exact number) and crocodiles have been known to cross oceans, though usually not to this degree.

Jack and Kelly also have a bonding moment where she reveals the real reason she's there, but I don't care.

Now that they know what they're looking for, the group decides a bit more evidence is needed to bring in a better-equipped task force. So Jack, Kelly, Keough, and several deputies go searching on foot while Hector takes Gare with him to search via helicopter. Of course, it seems nobody bothered to warn Gare that Hector likes to intentionally swim with wild crocodiles, so it comes as a shock to her when he lands the helicopter on the water in the cove where he believes the crocodile makes its lair and then goes diving. Her desperate offer of sex if he doesn't go is not enough to persuade him not to go.

Meanwhile, after the others find a footprint and make a plaster cast of it, Kelly manages to accidentally discover the dead deputy's severed head. Considering that the head is just a bit dirty and has a snake living in its mouth, I am left to assume it either washed up on its own or the croc carefully deposited it there because there is no way it made it all the way through its digestive system and came out looking like that. Of course, they are briefly distracted from the crocodile issue by realizing that Mrs. Bickerman is leading one of her cows out to the water, blindfolded. As they try to figure out what the hell she's doing, Kelly realizes the crocodile is waiting patiently in the water--and sure enough, she brought the cow to feed to the crocodile.

The Asylum Presents: Mega Crocodile vs. Ordinary Cow! We're really out of ideas now!
I feel an aside is necessary here to discuss the film's true star: the crocodile. Our first full view of it came during the bear attack and that was CGI. Decent CGI, given the period, and while it moved perhaps a bit too swiftly for such a large creature, it looked relatively accurate and convincing. (I might add that while the CGI maybe hasn't aged all that well, it's aged better than a lot of other films of this vintage and I can't be too hard on it since, well, this film got several sequels that premiered on the SyFy Channel, so I know it could be much worse) During the shots of the croc waiting for the cow to be brought to the lake's edge, however, we get entirely too good a look at the animatronic. Now, the prop croc in this film was made by the late Stan Winston and I hate to ever say anything bad about any work of Winston's, but I usually don't have to worry about that. However, either director Steve Miner didn't know to shoot the puppets properly (a possibility) or Winston was simply not on his A-Game with this film.

Don't get me wrong, in terms of fake crocodiles this is still way better than something like Blood Surf. However, there's a lot about the crocodile that just makes it look like exactly what it is: a lifeless prop. It might not be so bad if they hadn't chosen to show it gaping like a baby bird with its head at an odd angle in the first shot we see of it, which it would not be doing while waiting to ambush prey. Even in later scenes, though, the crocodile's movements are far jerkier than the smoother moments I've come to expect from Winston's work, so I'm still kind of thinking this may be a fault of the direction.

However, the other issue is the creature's head. While the body of the animatronic is magnificent, its head looks wrong, in a way that strikes me as more mammalian than reptile. For years I've tried to think of what, precisely, is wrong with it and all I can come up with is that it has cheeks. Crocodiles have flattened heads, but this one is very rounded and, like I said, appears to have cheeks.

Cheeky crocodile!
Well, when confronted Mrs. Bickerman confesses she knew about the crocodile all along but has been hiding its existence for years because she was afraid the authorities would kill it if they found out about it. She doesn't know where it came from, but six years ago it followed her husband home when he was out fishing and they had been feeding it ever since. While she greets Keough asking her if she also fed her husband to the crocodile by telling him to suck it, she does admit that the crocodile ate her husband by mistake two years ago. A horse had gotten loose and was trying to drink from the lake and when her husband tried to retrieve it as the croc zeroed in for the kill, well--the croc misjudged its target.

Keough puts her on house arrest for the time being, just in time to get a radio from Gare about Hector diving in crocodile cove. Well, Hector comes back up from his dive with nothing to show for it--until the crocodile surfaces behind him. Hector finds himself slowing backing away toward the helicopter and only escapes because he inflates an emergency flotation device and the croc goes for it instead of him. He gets the helicopter in the air, but the croc grabs a pontoon and almost pulls a Jaws 2 on them, before Gare drives it away with her revolver.

"Tonight, on Crocodile Dentist: Extreme Edition..."
Jack grounds Hector since he put a deputy at risk with his stunt. Kelly goes to talk to Hector and after some bullshit soul searching exchanges, Hector makes her realize that when Florida Fish & Game does finally arrive, they are going to kill the crocodile and that would be a waste of a valuable creature. Jack admits that is probably the case and then Hector and Kelly both argue to him, and to Keough, that this creature is too valuable and they should try to capture it. All they need to do is lure it onto the shore, where they will have a net, and deputies and F&G officers with tranq rifles will ride in the beds of pick up trucks to dart the creature but allow them an easy escape. Hector has a holding tank in Portland that will be perfect for the creature until they find a better one.

Jack agrees and Keough uses imminent domain to take one of Mrs. Bickerman's cows as bait, which they dangle in the water from under Hector's helicopter. However, by nightfall the crocodile still hasn't shown up. As they're about to give up, Hector detects the submerged crocodile coming in on radar. (Wait, his radar detects it under the water?! That's not how that works, that's not how any of this works!) Hector proves a bit of a shitty pilot, because when he tries to keep the crocodile from catching the cow before he can get it up on shore, he manages to crash his helicopter.

Keough tries to come to Hector's aid, somehow deciding that standing in knee-deep water when trying to catch a crocodile is a good idea. Luckily for him, the crocodile misses when it lunges at him, and luckily for the crocodile the shot from his gun goes wild. The croc chases him up on land and everyone finds themselves playing keepaway with the hyperactive CGI crocodile. They also switch to actual rifles, which don't seem to do anything but annoy the crocodile.

"Huh. So that's what that does."
Somehow, Kelly gets knocked into the water by the croc's tail and listens to Hector's advice to swim over to the helicopter after the croc notices her, and then follows his suggestion to dive under the water when the crocodile gets too close. She manages to get her foot caught in some roots when she hides behind a sunken tree trunk, but luckily for her the croc comes at her from the wrong side of the tree and is unable to bite her and ends up shaking her loose. She joins Hector on the helicopter after surfacing.

And the crocodile joins them, too. Only it gets stuck in the helicopter when it tries to lunge through its side doors. The tranquilizers begin to set in and the creature grows still. Keough still almost kills it, but Hector and Kelly point out that it's trapped. Keough listens to them instead of to Jack's insistence that they kill it, and then Jack makes a big show of drawing a rifle on the beast--only to shoot it in the jaw with another tranq dart.

Of course, then the movie decides to have it both ways when a second crocodile grabs Hector. It lets him go, after only wounding his ankle, and then Keough gets to blow its head off. The Florida Fish & Game folks arrive on the scene after all the excitement has died down. Keough goes with Hector when the ambulance arrives to take him away, which is the closest the film comes to satisfying my girlfriend's repeated requests for them to just kiss already.

After Kelly and Jack pair off, as well--and amusingly they don't kiss, either--we end with a double stinger, sort of. The first is watching Mrs. Bickerman feeding bread (?) to a bunch of baby crocodiles. The second is a shot of the crocodile on the flatbed of a truck being driven to its holding tank with a police escort.

"I am never flying with you again."
When I saw this film originally, it came after a friend who shared a lot of the same tastes as I did raved about it. And, indeed, I agreed with a lot of his points and there are a couple I still do to this day--which is to say that Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Platt are both wonderful actors who make their characters the highlight of the film whenever the crocodile isn't present, even though Bridget Fonda and Bill Pullman are completely unengaging (largely because their characters are awful).

However, at the time I thought Keough and Hector were awesome characters as well. Looking at the film at 32, Jesus Christ, they're just as awful as everyone else and possibly moreso in Hector's case. Even at 15 I felt some of Hector's "out there" comments--like randomly sexually harassing Kelly or Gare, and belittling Keough for his weight--were awkward and unnecessary. However, at 32 I realize that "abrasive jerk who also loves crocodiles" is all there is to the character on the page, and that the only reason I don't want to see him get devoured is because of Platt's performance. Keough fares a lot better, since the film seems to believe he deserves a lot of mockery thrown his way and that makes him sympathetic even before Gleeson infuses him with great life. However, he's ultimately almost as much an asshole as everyone else.

Well, okay, the deputies seem okay, but we also never really get to know any of them.

As for the film's crocodile action, well, I already commented on the somewhat underwhelming effects on display. However, you might also have noticed that the body count in this killer crocodile film is a grand total of two. (Well, okay, two humans, a bear, and a cow) Not every film has to have a body count like Deadly Eyes, but come on! It's especially amusing when you consider this film would inexplicably be turned into a franchise nearly ten years later, where every sequel that followed had a body count many times that of this film.

However, even though the script is not even remotely as clever as it thinks it is, its characters are all awful people, and it can't even bother to have any of them get eaten for being such assholes--I still kind of find myself fond of this film. Don't get me wrong, though. In the grand scheme of killer crocodilian films this is still trailing behind Alligator and Rogue, but when its competition includes films like Alligator II: The Mutation and Blood Surf? I'll chose Lake Placid every time.

I might choose Crocodile over it, but that's because I find myself far too delighted by its awfulness.

I do also have to give Lake Placid some credit for the fact that, if you watched the trailers, you would come away certain that Hector was the crazed scientist who wants to take the beast alive and gets eaten for having such a foolish notion. Instead, not only does he not get eaten,but the film actually expects us to side with him for once.

Now, to be fair, I have to deduct some credit from the film for its happy "we'll save the killer crocodile" ending, since The Lost World: Jurassic Park did the same thing two years earlier...and I did the same thing with an illustrated story I wrote in second grade after seeing both Jaws and Crocodile. Although I obviously doubt that David E. Kelley somehow ripped my idea off, I would not be surprised to learn he consciously ripped off The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I would argue, though, that this film handles that slightly better. It's a bit more reasonable to save the life of an unusual crocodile that has killed three people in a largely secluded area than to argue for the protection of an artificially created T-Rex that has gone on a deadly rampage in a major city.

This film's human heroes are also more likable. Contemplate that on the Tree of Woe.

In the end, this film is definitely not anywhere near as good as I used to think it was, but I still find it to be rather a passable time waster. However, it's a product of its time in all the worst ways and a reminder of why we should be glad David E. Kelley is not really a major entertainment player these days.

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