UNDERRATED: Lake Placid (1999)

Lake Placid (USA, 1999)
Directed by Steve Miner
Starring Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson

Whenever a film comes along which changes the landscape of cinema, it is inevitably followed by a host of derivative, inferior films which seek to capitalise upon its success. Most of these offerings will embrace some technical or narrative aspect of the pioneering work without understanding the impact or purpose of either aspect. Many films tried to imitate Paul Greengrass' shaky camera work on the later Bourne films, but did so as a gimmick rather than a means to immerse the audience in the action.
After its release, Jaws prompted a wave (pun firmly intended) of knock-off shockers, the vast majority of which had none of the skill, substance or production values of the original. While many of these trashy offerings turned out to be good proving grounds for future directors (Joe Dante on Piranha, James Cameron on Piranha II: The Spawning), the trend very quickly exhausted itself and degenerated into utter risibility. Twenty-four years after Steven Spielberg scared American audiences to death, Lake Placid returns to many of the aspects that Jaws cemented, and while it's nowhere near as good, it's better than many would have you believe. 
Lake Placid came at a time when the horror genre was steadily eating its own tail as a different trend - the self-referential, postmodern horror movie - started to ripen and rot. Wes Craven's New Nightmare and Scream had set the bar earlier in the 1990s, which was then lowered by the knock-offs (I Know What You Did Last Summer) and finally shattered by the parodies (Scary Movie and his sequels). Mark Kermode once wrote a piece for The Independent called 'Horror Will Eat Itself', arguing that the genre is essentially cannibalistic - and looking at the 1990s and early-2000s, it's hard not to come to that conclusion.
Steve Miner's record in the horror genre may not be as stellar as the late Wes Craven, but he comes out of the same period, having got his first break on The Last House on the Left with Craven and subsequently directing two of the sequels to Friday the 13th. You might expect, therefore, that Miner might be attempting to do for Jaws with Lake Placid what Craven succeeded in doing with Scream for The Last House on the Left and the Elm Street series. But where Craven was cerebral and savage in his deconstruction, Miner is altogether more forgiving and affectionate about the genre he knows and loves.
If you had never seen any of the monster movie knock-offs that Jaws inspired, or any of the Jaws sequels for that matter, you could regard Lake Placid as the best possible rip-off of Jaws that anyone could have expected. Die-hard horror fans may defend the likes of Lewis Teague's Alligator or Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive - the latter especially, given Hooper's reputation in the genre and its involvement in the video nasties panic of the 1980s. But even with your most charitable hat on, it's hard to argue that these films had the same capacity to terrorise as Spielberg's film, and while the poor production values can be mitigated by the lower budgets involved, mitigation in and of itself can only go so far.
Like Jaws, Lake Placid boasts production values which are high quality enough to sell it to a wide audience, but also rough enough to ensure a certain amount of edge can be retained. Daryn Okada, who later shot Cradle 2 the Grave, is a very workable cinematographer who understands the aesthetic of horror. More to the point, both he and Miner understand what Spielberg was attempting to achieve through the power of suggestion to get over the physical limitations of the monster. You do see a lot more of the croc than you ever did of Bruce the shark, but the film still has the confidence to keep it hidden until it's needed.
Even more importantly, Lake Placid recognises that what ultimately sealed Jaws' reputation was our sympathy with the characters. The jump scares and sense of terror that John Williams' iconic score achieved are all well and good, but the shark becomes scarier the more we learn more about Brody, Hooper and Quint. The best scene in Jaws by a nautical mile is one in which the shark is never seen - the scene on the boat where Quint recounts his chilling experience on the USS Indianapolis. These scenes in the calm before the storm give us the character development needed to make us care about these people, and turn what could be just a cheap scare into emotionally involving terror.
Accordingly, Lake Placid spends a lot of its running time with the characters sitting down or walking around, talking about how they feel about what is happening. But don't let that statement deter you: the film never risks becoming the next On Golden Pond, where all semblance of plot collapses into saccharine tedium. The film still knows it's a horror film at heart (or at least a horror-comedy), with the characters' motivations and exchanges always looping around to come back to the monster; the very fact that it's set in Maine will lead Stephen King fans to expect the worst is going to happen. But there are less scenes of the crocodile attacking than out-and-out gorehounds may demand, which helps to keep things interesting for the rest of us.
Many of the characters in Lake Placid correspond to the archetypes which Jaws created. Bill Pullman does a capable job of standing in for Roy Scheider, as the law enforcement officer who is out of his depth, having never tackled this kind of threat before. Pullman has always had an irascible quality to him which has served him well in films like Malice and Lost Highway; he avoids being just a carbon copy of Brody because he consciously makes him more world-weary.
The rest of the cast are pretty good as well, with Bridget Fonda embracing the unlikeable aspects of her character and playing off Pullman very well. Fonda is somewhat at home in the  horror genre, having excelled in Single White Female some years before, and she brings a brings a memorable physical presence, taking the eager female role that Laura Dern played in Jurassic Park and turning many of the characteristics on its head. Elsewhere Brendan Gleeson makes the most he can out of an exposition-heavy role, and while Oliver Platt is no Robert Shaw, he stays on just the right side of hammy to deliver a memorable take on the Quint role in the story.
So far, Lake Placid is shaping up reasonably well as a generic but well-constructed monster movie which succeeds where many Jaws derivatives failed. The acid test, however, comes in the comedy which the film attempts to balance with its desire to scare the audience. The blend of horror and comedy is always a tricky one, and it's something that divided critics when the film was first released; Roger Ebert called it "completely wrong-headed from beginning to end", while Empire magazine opined that it could be enjoyed as both a straight-up horror film and a "sly, ironic take" on the genre.
Many of the individual funny moments in Lake Placid work very nicely, particularly the characterisation of the aptly-named Delores Bickerman (Betty White). Her foul-mouthed exchanges and utter contempt for the police recall the funnier moments of Fatal Instinct or the Naked Gun series. But the more the film attempts to play up these kinds of exchanges, the  more that its identity becomes uncertain.
It's very rare that horror comedies successfully balance horror and comedy at the same time, like The Evil Dead series; most transition from either one to the other (An American Werewolf in London), or pick a side early on and stick with it (Young Frankenstein). Lake Placid's biggest flaw - aside from its lack of anything remotely groundbreaking - is that it see-saws between comedy and horror to the point where we begin to lose interest in the plot. We are invested in the characters up to a point and enjoy the jokes and scares as they come, but it's not constructed as well as it could be. There is much in the monster movie sub-genre which is ripe for self-aware ridicule, like the slasher films which ultimately led to Scream. But again Miner comes up short against Craven's standards, and the film eventually drags and flounders as we build up all too slowly to the inevitable climax.
Lake Placid is an enjoyable and workable monster movie which passes the time quite nicely despite offering very little that is new. It is perhaps the best knock-off of Jaws that has ever been produced, with Miner working hard to focus on the characters rather than the special effects (created by Stan Winstone Studios). Ultimately it falls down on its failure to address the balance of comedy and horror, but whether you take it seriously or as knowing trash, it's still a reasonable way to spend 82 minutes.


NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)