I find myself in the ridiculous position of having approached a made-for-Syfy killer crocodile movie, that's also the fourth film in a franchise, with sufficiently high hopes that it was capable of disappointing me. This is, to be clear, entirely a me problem, and not much at all a problem with Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, which shares with its 2010 predecessor Lake Placid 3 the quality of being really just inexplicably better than it has any discernible reason to be. "Made for Syfy" was the absolute nadir of genre respectability, in the years before the hungry maw of streaming sites demanding an uninterrupted flow of new content removed the very last quality control filters we had. Many were the afternoons I spent watching 20 minutes of a new work on Syfy (or its earlier incarnations, Sci Fi and the Sci-Fi Channel) hoping for something at least so bad it was good, if not genuinely passable as entertainment, before finding that whatever drek was in front of me was too lifeless and drained of affect even for that modest hope. And did we not see just recently two perfect examples of the form from Lake Placid's sister franchise, Anaconda 3: Offspring and Anacondas: Trail of Blood? There would be every reason for Lake Placid: The Final Chapter to be just as insufferable as either of those, and the fact that it's not remotely that kind of grinding tedium - that it buzzes through its 90 minutes with a bright pace, just exactly the right amount of plot complication, and a generous serving of violent death scene - is genuinely worthy of praise, however begrudging or unenthusiastic.

As with Lake Placid 3, the film is structured as a hybrid of the giant killer animal movie and the slasher film, and it comes enormously close to making it explicit: the main thread of the plot involves a bus full of lithe teenagers who aren't wearing very much ending up in the wrong place where territorial killers mow them down, leading to a climax set at an abandoned cabin in the woods that serves to connect things back to earlier movies in the franchise. Somehow, it also manages to work Jurassic Park in there, and it doesn't even feel especially forced. But before it can do any of these things, it must first walk back the one completely unforgivably idiotic decision made in LP3: the death of Reba, the salty survivalist and hunter played by Yancy Butler, and surely a candidate for the title of best character in any post-'90s creature feature. We don't see her actually die in the third movie, though that's clearly how it was blocked; The Final Chapter deals with this by suggesting that she was merely knocked unconscious by the giant crocodile trying to eat her from a distance of about four feet, and she recovers quickly enough to kill the same croc when it, too, turns out to have been merely unconscious.

Relieved of this most important bit of lingering unpleasantness, The Final Chapter is able to go on to do some more tweaking and revising. We learn early on, directly contradicting the first Lake Placid, that the crocodile population in Black Lake, Maine (screenwriter David Reed further adjusts the backstory by proposing that "Lake Placid" is the town on the shores of the lake, rather than an idle joke) is in fact an entirely new species previously unknown to science. Thus explaining their ability to survive the Maine winters, and presumably also to justify how fast they grow, enough so that there's yet another 20+ foot animal - several, in fact - in the lake just a couple years after the last culling. At any rate, the powers that be have decided that keeping the population alive for study is more important than keeping the lake safe for human consumption, and so the Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with building an electric fence all the way around the lake, under the guidance of Lt. Ryan Loflin (Paul Nicholls); the project is very nearly finished, meaning that the main task at this point is making sure that all of the crocodiles are inside the fence, while all of the people are outside. This seems to be the main job being done by Sheriff Teresa Glove (Elisabeth Röhm), Reba (who has been press-ganged into becoming an EPA agent for the duration of this assignment, to work off some of her lengthy history of poaching), and Dennis (Ako Mitchell). Dennis isn't much of a character, but just about the entire film hinges on him: he's not quite done running some tests, so he manages to sneak his way into the fenced-in area without anybody knowing, with the help of a few poachers led by the grizzled Jim Bickerman (Robert Englund), son of the first Mrs. Bickerman from the 1999 movie (one of the dumber charms of The Final Chapter is that it very carefully spells out the relationship between all three preceding movies' incarnations of the Bickermans). Meanwhile, Teresa has managed to convinced her bookish daughter Chloe (Poppy Lee Friar, an excellent piece of physical casting to resemble Röhm's dughter) to go on just one stupid teenager adventure before leaving for college, so she's given into the hectoring of her best (only?) friend Elaine (Caroline Ford) to go on a trip to the shores of nearby Clear Lake for camping trip with a local swim team. And Chloe does this mostly in the hopes of making time with Drew (Daniel Black), a sexy swimmer, though he's far too busy being dull and awful with his terror of a girlfriend, Brittany (Scarlett Byrne). All goes corkscrew-shaped when the chickenhawk bus driver Gus (Kitodar Todorov) is so preoccupied with looking at bikini photos on his phone that he takes the wrong turn at the junction between Clear Lake and the crocodile-ridden Black Lake, and drives right through the gate in the fence left open by Ryan's estranged son Max (Benedict Smith), a worker on the engineering team who got dragged away by a croc while investigating Dennis and the poachers, though he somehow survived this enough to find what remains of the camping trip after their first run-in with the animals, and lead them towards nominal safety.

All that, and I didn't even mention how Teresa and Ryan are in the midst of a will-they-won't-they flirtation that's currently trending hard towards "they will". The point being, The Final Chapter has quite a lot of stuff going on, and the benefit of this is that its 90 minutes clip by at an admirably persistent speed. The downside is that most of what's going isn't very interesting; the teen characters (and let's throw Max in there, since he's obviously set up to be Chloe's love interest) are all extremely poorly-acted; Byrne is so stilted and inhuman that I wrongly assumed she was a Bulgarian local fighting a losing battle against English. Turns out she's just British and can't cope with an American accent. Any time we spend with these characters is time spent poorly, and we spend a lot of time with them; the adult trio  of Teresa, Ryan, and Reba is mostly just puttering around the lake until such time as the plot actually needs them, and they are merely inadequate. I am particularly sorry that Reba should be reduced from her original grouchy self into a tepid boilerplate quip dispenser; it would have been perhaps better to leave her dead than to force her into  being the unfunny comic relief.

Still and all, the film is generally adequate: while the human drama is typically not worth much of anything, it is interrupted so regularly by crocodile attacks that it hardly feels like a problem. Plus, the deeper we go into the film, the more that Englund comes to the fore, and he's having a real good time playing a character who is surprisingly less openly evil than merely selfish and bratty. This comes as little surprise: Englund has always had a kind of self-aware twinkle about his appearance in trashy genre movies, and while he's not a very good actor per se, his total lack of preciousness about being who he is and appealing to the audience he appeals to means that he's generally a very appealing screen presence.

Beyond this, the film has a strength I wasn't expecting at all: it looks really good. Director Don Michael Paul (who would go on to become a specialist in unnecessary direct-to-video sequels, helming among other titles, two films each in the Sniper, Jarhead, and Tremors franchises, as well as, God help us, 2016's Kindergarten Cop 2) and cinematographer Martin Chichov have put unexpected effort into giving The Final Chapter quite a lot of hazy, woodsy atmosphere, and this in a franchise that had not prior to this point gone in for much in the way of atmosphere whatsoever. There's quite a bit of yellow-reddish diffuse light that gives the most basic mechanical scenes a charge of mystery, and turns the actually interesting scenes (such as a scramble over rocks to find bloody, foamy water lapping against the shore) into something unexpectedly close to actual horror. The scenes in the woods have a certain dappled coolness to them that makes the appearance of the (bad but not terrible) CGI crocodiles in those spaces seem like an extension of the slightly ghostly mood already present. And the nighttime scenes at the fence, blatantly copying from Jurassic Park, at least copy it very well and with the right amount of storybook blackness in the night sky. None of this is enough to help the movie overcome the unengaging characters or the general made-for-TV cheapness of the whole affair, but it's a lot more than a sane person would hope for, and I confess that it was enough for me to find myself at least tolerably entertained for pretty much the whole running time.

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)