Lake Placid was not a big hit during its theatrical run but attracted some fans via home video and television screenings. However, its approach to horror has also attracted a certain amount of detractors in the genre’s fanbase: said viewers consider it too overtly jokey and not committed enough to the “horror” portion of its horror comedy approach. It also gets a certain amount of ribbing for its strong echoes of both Jaws and Alligator. Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of the film will mostly come down to a matter of personal taste — but Lake Placid is too sincere in its crowd-pleaser ambitions to be shrugged off entirely.
Lake Placid was penned by David Kelley, a writer and producer better known for creating shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal. It all begins on a lake in Maine, where Sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson) witnesses a fast-moving undersea predator bite a Fish & Game employee in half. Fish & Game chief Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) is called in to work with Keough and the two try to figure out what is lurking beneath the waves.
When an apparently prehistoric tooth is found in a bite mark on the corpse, paleontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) is called in from New York to assist. She’s a neurotic type smarting from a love affair gone wrong. Gonzo, wealthy reptile expert Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt) makes the team a quartet when he suddenly shows up to contribute both gadgets and weirdo theories about the creature. Cue a mixture of monster attacks and wisecracks as the quartet realize they are contending with a giant crocodile.
Lake Placid has a lot working for it. The cast is excellent and everyone hooks into the film’s knowingly campy vibe: Fonda comes on like a screwball comedy heroine and Platt hams it up in an engaging way while Pullman and Gleeson play it deadpan, acting as slyly funny straight men to Fonda and Platt ‘s showier work. Kelley’s script is built for speed, offering a fast-paced barrage of snappy patter and periodic creature attacks. Director Steve Miner, who cut his teeth directing Friday The 13th sequels, brings a nice widescreen gloss to the action and maintains an energetic pace that complements Kelley’s script.
However, Lake Placid also has elements that horror purists will have trouble with. Kelley’s approach to his tale favors the comedy over the horror, right down to a climax that gets warm and fuzzy when you might be expecting it to go in for the kill. A notable example of this comedy-heavy style is subplot involving Betty White as an old-timer who knows more about the croc than she lets on: she’s primarily there to make foul-mouthed wisecracks. Despite its R-rating and the occasional dollop of gore, this is definitely “lite horror” that is aimed more at a general multiplex crowd rather than genre diehards.
That said, taking Lake Placid too seriously is a mistake because it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t intend for you to do so. It’s clearly a lark of a film that those involved made for the fun of making a goofball creature-feature. If you can appreciate that approach, it’s a genial little time-killer that is suited nicely to the small screen.