It only took nineteen years, but with Lake Placid: Legacy, a 2018 made-for-Syfy thriller that could be retitled and made a standalone project at the expense of absolutely nothing other than two lines of dialogue, the franchise quit beating the odds. This is every bit the piece of inane dogshit that one would expect from a made-for-TV killer crocodile movie to be, perhaps all the more unpleasant on account of how unexpectedly tolerable the Lake Placids had been prior to this point. This is what happens when you dump everything that had been fueling that run of junky affability: no members of the cantankerous, generally sociopathic Bickerman clan, no sarcastic middle-aged lady poacher/sheriff, not even a setting in the backwoods of New England. I do not in fact know where Legacy is meant to take place; it's a South African production, shot in the vicinity of Cape Town, and it definitely doesn't feel particularly North American.

Most importantly, it loses the thing that has dominated this franchise up till the avowedly jokey and insincere first Lake Placid, all the way back in 1999: self-awareness about how hokey these movies are. I don't think any of the other sequels have gone so far as to be actual comedies, like the first movie, but they understand that there's a certain level of unapologetic kitsch that makes movies of this sort fun to watch. One does not stumble across the inexhaustible Reba because is afraid of being silly.

Legacy, though, now here's a film that's powerfully afraid of being silly. The film is heavy and glum, most vividly because of its persistently under-lit visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Trevor Calverley, who shoots every interior like a level in a zombie survival video game. It's striking, I guess, in the way it renders deep dark spaces in monochrome chiaroscuro - the high-contrast green area, the high-contrast yellow area, and so on - but it's all so very hard to make out anything other than the vague impression of industrial spaces that the film becomes physically draining to watch. It's certainly not any fun to see all of these slivers of light marking out side-lit humans darting around in the dark, and just feels apocalyptic in a cheap, lifeless way. Even in the daylit exteriors, the film feels somewhat oppressively heavy in its visuals: they are very rich and lush in a way that feels artificially sharpened, like the black levels have all been pushed to exaggerate the colors.

As for the plot that gets us into all this sullen darkness: there's a group of eco-terrorists (a phrase with an extraordinarily bad batting average in English-language cinema) who've just wreaked some small-scale havoc, when their celebration is interrupted by a message from Dane (Maxim Baldry). Who's Dane, you ask? Well, Dane is the former best friend of Sam (Tim Rozon), the current leader of the group, and there seems to be some indication that the "former" part of that equation is roughly equal parts "ideological split" and "Dane hates Sam's new girlfriend". The new girlfriend is Jade (Katherine Barrell), who brings into the group her younger sister Alice (Sai Bennett, who looks enough like Barrell that I had trouble telling them apart. So good casting, I guess). The other members are Billy (Luke Newton), a hacker, and Spencer (Craig Stein), whose contribution I didn't actually follow, but he's the most annoying, by some distance, of an annoying lot of people.

Dane's message, delivered by video, is a bit of a taunt. There's a genetic research facility, now abandoned, on an island in the middle of an isolated lake. If Sam and his gang of poseurs are real activists, he claims, they'd be able break in that facility and do... something. Earn activist points, I suppose. Sam gets sufficiently riled up by this that he and the gang hire up two wilderness rangers, Pennie (Alisha Bailey) and Travis (Greg Kriek) to take them into the woods to find the lake. Upon arriving, they find no trace of anything except some blood and general destruction; it's unclear if Dane and his party were attacked, or if he's staged what looks like an attack in order to prank Sam. Unclear to them, of course: we've already seen Dane's partner Gomez (Gavin Lee Gomes) get attacked by something underwater. We also know that we're watching a Lake Placid movie, so we both have a pretty clear sense of what the "something" was, and what the genetic researchers were trying to create.

Lake Placid: Legacy, takes this all enormously seriously, and it's not clear why. Initially, at least, I assumed it would have something to do with the gang's activism, but that ends up having nothing whatsoever to do with the meat of the plot; once Sam has been shamed into taking up Dane's dare, there's absolutely no reason they couldn't be ravers, or adventure tourist, or Cistercian monks. They're nothing but croc bait from the moment that Travis becomes the first person bitten in half, and not terribly interesting croc bait, either. Jonathan Lloyd Walker's script has an abiding problem with giving its characters any kind of personality - Dane is by far the most defined member of the cast, and we only see him as pre-recorded videos for the first two-thirds of the movie. None of the actors are doing very much to combat this, either; Rozon isn't even able to pull focus from his aggressively hipster beard, and pretty much the closest thing that anybody in the ensemble comes to putting any sort of personalising spin on the material is that Bailey is treating her dialogue very seriously, and is melodramatically declaring every line like she's doing amateur Shakespeare. And hell, if that's what the movie's going to give me, that's what I'll take. Joe Pantoliano shows up pretty late to lazily cash a check as the mad scientist who explains what's going on, and spits out those two sentences that tie this back into the main Lake Placid storyline with the least possible amount of effort or investment; by virtue of being, by orders of magnitude, the most recognisable actor in the cast, he cheats his way into giving the most engaging performance, but not because he's doing anything to earn it.

The miserable acting of miserable characters fits the overall misery of the film. Director Darrell Roodt, an extraordinarily prolific South African filmmaker whose career has ranged from the solemn prestige of the 1995 Cry, the Beloved Country, to the unapologetic trash of the 2004 Dracula 3000, which came out the same year that he directed the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee Yesterday. No points for guessing which of those three most resembles Lake Placid: Legacy, but he still directs it with the unsmiling airlessness of a middlebrow prestige filmmaker. Hence the heavy cinematography, hence the joyless, angry characters. Presumably, hence the ecology overtones, but the film bungles those so badly that it's hard to imagine he or anybody actually wanted that to be our main takeaway. No, it seems like the big thing we're meant to experience with Legacy is a killer animal thriller that's wholly devoid of any frivolous entertainment, and does everything in its power to avoid showing us its 50-foot crocodile to make sure of that. Given the terrible CGI - comfortably the worst this franchise has seen - that's probably for the best, but there's really just the one thing that draws anybody into a killer croc movie, and well, this doesn't have it, and that is that.

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)