The late 1990s were a deeply insincere moment in American pop culture. Emboldened primarily, I suppose by the enormous success of Jerry Seinfeld's famous stand-up and television comedy about nothing, every facet of music, movies, and television were infested by a great desire to indulge in something that was not, in fact, irony, but was described that way so pervasively that the word "ironic" now basically refers to that. To the glib, sophisticated style of mordant humor that permits the speaker to divorce themselves from any real engagement with what they're talking or thinking about.

I bring this up because Lake Placid, from 1999, is something of an irony bomb, explicitly mouthing these exact sentiments in the opening scene through the vessel of a character who is unmistakably looked at askance by the screenplay by David E. Kelley, himself one of the leading lights of the Age of Irony, thanks to his TV show Ally McBeal (a show for whose popularity we shall have to some day answer to our children). "Look at this joyless, square cop", the movie says in this opening scene, with mirthful detachment, "he's such a hick. Doesn't like sarcasm or city folks. Hey, let's throw a line in two-thirds of the way through the movie to suggest, a propos of nothing, that he's also a homophobe".

The film itself is part of the wide-ranging trend of mixing self-aware & self-effacing comedy into horror movies, distinctive mostly because of how heavily it skews that balance towards comedy. As will happen when a TV auteur noted for his quips takes the lead on a giant killer animal movie, and make no mistake, Lake Placid is a Kelley film in all the ways that matter, even if he didn't direct it. Even if, in fact, the director is somebody like Steve Miner, who you'd think should keep the movie more firmly tied down in horror territory: Miner having the distinction of being the only man to direct films in both the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises (F13, Part 2 & F13, Part 3, and Halloween H20, specifically). But he also spent 1998 directing four episodes of the slick teen soap Dawson's Creek, including the pilot, and it's that skill set that gets a far more robust workout over the course of Lake Placid's gratifyingly swift 82 minutes.

The movie's plot is thoroughly formulaic in a way that would become even more familiar during the glut of direct-to-video and made-for-TV creature features in the 2000s, but was as old as the very first Jaws knock-offs. In the Maine countryside, on the picturesque Black Lake (we are told that they wanted to name it "Lake Placid", but that was taken already), Fish & Game officer Walt Lewis (David Lewis), a monosyllabic snarky bastard, and Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson, not even feinting towards an American accent) are on a boat. It doesn't matter why. What matters it that Walt gets attacked by some kind of a Thing, that absconds with his lower half. And this is something that Sheriff Hank has no clue how to deal with, so off we dissolve to New York City, and the film gets down to its real project: forcing us into the company of the worst goddamn people in the world. The first of these is Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda), a paleontologist at the natural history museum, who finds out that her boss-boyfriend (Adam Arkin) and BFF (Mariska Hargitay) have been sleeping together, and in this circumstance, taking an assignment to the Maine backwoods seems totally reasonable. But upon arriving, Kelly starts to complain about everything. In this wide-ranging arrogant New Yorkers-hate-nature way that, to save my life, I can't tell if we're meant to laugh with or at.

Kelly, Sheriff Hank, and a new Fish & Game officer, Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) begin to investigate, and are quickly joined by Kelly's colleague, a mythology scholar and crocodile fetishist named Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt). Note that nobody at all has said one word about crocodiles so far. That's how good Hector is. For it is, in fact, a saltwater crocodile that's haunting Black Lake and devouring the local fauna, and the film give us just enough real knowledge to encourage us to really dig in and think about all the way that this makes no sense at all (a croc swimming across the Pacific is the kind of dubious science it's possible to swallow in the interests of kicking off the plot; traversing the Indian Ocean and rounding South Africa before crossing most of the Atlantic from north to south is daring us not to call bullshit). The film eases us into that: it's a good halfway through the total running time before we see the croc in more than just a flash for a second or two, at which point it is predominately played by a really neat Stan Winston Studios animatronic, and occasionally by shiny CGI that I'd say has aged poorly, except that I distinctly remember it already looked terribly insubstantial in 1999, like this massive 30-foot crocodilian weighed no more than a soap bubble, or a fairy's kisses.

But, I mean, hell! We're not at this giant crocodile movie for the giant crocodile, I hope! No indeed, we're hear to enjoy that one of a kind David E. Kelley banter, as Kelly, Hector, Jack, and Sheriff Hank have personality clashes between their four different outlooks: Jack's taciturn manliness, Sheriff Hank's bullish rural gruffness, Hector's animalistic mysticism, and Kelly's bottomless ability to hate goddamn everything in the world. There's also sassy Mrs. Bickerman (Betty White), the old lady who's the sole human being living on the lake, ever since the time her senile husband died under circumstances that are too enormously shady for words, and now busies herself feeding cattle to the crocodile. And Deputy Sharon Gare (Meredith Salenger), who's there largely to let Platt bounce lines off somebody who won't fight back.

So all these different personality types come into conflict, which in this case means hurling invective at each other. Florid insults, to be sure. Here's a nowhere near comprehensive list of the snappy things that are said over the course of the movie:

-"Maybe later you can chew the bark off my big fat log."
-"Officer Fuckmeat."
-"The longer you live, the more sex you get to have with your sister."
-"You fuckshit!"
-"If I had a dick, this is where I'd tell you to suck it."
-"It helps to hear it from a complete stranger: you're fat."
-"If you call me ma'am one more time, I'll sue you, and with today's laws it's possible."
-"They conceal information like that in books."
-"Maybe I should just wipe myself with some leafy little piece of poison oak. And then I can spend the whole day scratching my ass, blending in with the natives."

And that's not even counting the more routine "fuck yourself" and "asshole" and such that litter the script. It's truly fatiguing. In the hands of the greats, vulgar language can be the source of some of our finest poetry, but too much of it used too bluntly is beneath artlessness. It is the effluvia of filthy-minded adolescents, gleefully shouting "fuck!" because they know it's offensive, but unable to do anything beyond carpet-bomb insults.

This is, please understand, the only card Lake Placid has to play. You either find the nasty-minded writing amusing or you don't, and there's nothing left for the film to draw on if you don't. The acting is no help to the screenplay at all, which is kind of absurd: you'd think the one thing that dialogue this chewy and acidic ought be good for is providing a lot of fun for the actors spouting it. That was, after all, the entire basis of George Sanders and Sydney Greenstreet's careers. But the unifying characteristic of the cast is that they're terrible. Unsurprisingly, in the case of Fonda, who magnifies everything objectionable, shrill, and bitchy about her deeply unpleasant stereotype of a character. And unsurprisingly in Pullman's case as well, though mostly he's just a lump of meat for the vast bulk of the film, until he finally gets an outraged moralistic speech that he completely fluffs. It is very surprising that White is so weak in her role: the foul-mouthed old lady with a cheerful attitude should have been a gift to this actor among all actors, but there's not a single moment of White's performance where she appears to believe in the character, her motivations, or the words she say. Go back to that "if I had a dick" line - there are so many ways to make that line funny, or at least energetic, and White just sort of slurs it out and lets it die.

Platt's not terrible - the crude, erratic role is a liability that any actor would be hard-pressed to make work, and he at least has the right personality for it - but it mostly falls to Gleeson to be interesting in any way, with any plot beat, or any line reading. His deadpan response, "He seemed taller", when snarkily asked to identify a corpse from just the toe is the only line in the whole movie that I, for one, find even a little bit funny, and generally speaking his deliberate approach to the character - play the man, not the collection of quips - is enough to make him far and away the most tangible figure in the movie. (we know from other evidence, of course, that Gleeson is far and away the most reliably talented member of this ensemble, but I wouldn't want to use Lake Placid itself to mount that argument).

The flat acting and the deadening effect that has on the already shaky comedy is emblematic of the film's biggest overriding problem. It wants to occupy too many tonal registers at once, and can't make any of them succeed. The lurches from comedy of ill-manners to creepy monster movie to campy exercise in musty genre mechanics are ungainly at best, and they are rarely at their best. More often, the film heaves its way through the shift from comedy to horror like a drunk attempting to navigate a narrow doorway, doing through brutal force what cannot be done through mental clarity. Miner's directing is exactly wrong: he has no apparent sense of comic timing and his approach to making a thriller consists entirely in telegraphing jump scares, not all of which actually arrive. He does, at least, show off the crocodile well, lingering on half-seen animatronic shots and jumping briskly through whole-body CGI shots. And the film gets some decent mileage from the simple technique of showing nothing on the water in wide shots: a good way of suggesting both the size and the unknowability of the lake, and allowing us to sketch in our idea of the creature living inside of it.

Still, when everything is working perfectly Lake Placid is no more than the exact same creature feature that was all over the place in the years after Jurassic Park, and was often done better (it's easy to spot problems with Anaconda, but I'd never pass up a chance to watch that movie in favor of this one). And the catastrophic mixture of dumb comedy and wimpy horror that keeps apologising for itself means that things almost never work perfectly. There are many worse giant killer animal movies than Lake Placid, of course; it is a subgenre uniquely adept at producing tacky, formulaic garbage. A snotty sense of humor detaching the film from its own content and characters is certainly not a winning strategy to redeem that formula.

Body Count: A moose, a bear, two cows, and a crocodile, and then all of two human beings, in full disregard for how badly we want to watch every last one of these people die.

Reviews in this series
Lake Placid (Miner, 1999)
Lake Placid 2 (Flores, 2007)
Lake Placid 3 (Furst, 2010)
Lake Placid: The Final Chapter (Paul, 2012)
Lake Placid vs. Anaconda (Stone, 2015)
Lake Placid: Legacy (Roodt, 2018)