Fright by Bite

The lake isn't really placid: There's something in it that's chomping people!

Croc potshot: Bul Pullman (left) admires a blast from Brendan Gleeson.
Croc potshot: Bul Pullman (left) admires a blast from Brendan Gleeson.
You can tell the first wave of summer blockbusters have shot their wad when the studios start tossing out their second- and third-string films. Back in the old days, these would have been called "programmers" — thoroughly competent entries that reiterated all the conventions of their reliable, easy-to-market genres.

Such is Lake Placid, as unpretentious and unprepossessing a little item as you could imagine. Among the names on its pedigree are TV writer extraordinaire David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope) and horror director not-so-extraordinaire Steve Miner, who brought us House, Halloween H20, and some of the early Friday the 13th epics.

The taxonomy of Lake Placid is equally clear-cut. Genre: horror. Subgenre: eco-weirdness. Class: reptilian. Species: crocodile. In short, this is Jaws with a big, thrashing tail.

The film starts out on a delightful, frothy note, as a diver from the bureau of fish and wildlife gets chomped in half by an unseen, swimming something in a large, murky lake. In the aftermath of this lovingly rendered scene, a group of experts converges on the small Maine village near the lake. Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) is the Handsome Youngish Man, another fish and wildlife ranger. Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) is the Pretty, Even Younger Woman, a prickly but oh-so-squeamish paleontologist whose presence never really makes sense, despite a brave attempt to justify it with a backstory about a broken relationship. Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt) is the Eccentric Comic Relief/Expository Device, a crocodile expert who shows up with a wisecracking mouth and a helicopter full of high-tech equipment.

The local who must keep the peace among these three is long-suffering sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson), who may be a rube, but is a good man to have around when the giant mutant reptile shows up. Also on hand are Mrs. Bickerman (Betty White), the Crazy Old Lady, and a sexy deputy (Meredith Salenger — my, how Natty Gann has grown up!) as the Romantic Interest for the Male Second Lead.

We don't have to wait as long as usual to glimpse the huge but frankly lumbering thirty-foot crocodile, which occasionally likes to pop up on land to snack on a large mammal. Despite the fact that, from the beginning, the beast just cries out to have a compressed air tank stuffed in his mouth and exploded, Scott and Cyr make the usual ideological arguments about the Importance of Preserving This Unique Specimen, even as he is chomping down their comrades in glorious Panavision. This leads to a bizarre scheme to capture the big guy, best characterized as "helicopter trolling."

Lake Placid is basically a modern studio version of the sort of thing Roger Corman used to knock out between breakfast and teatime, distinguished by a more upscale cast and fancier special effects. (Come to think of it, I've seen TV test patterns with fancier effects than the old Corman films.) Miner, as always, way overuses the shock-cut fakeout. ("Don't sneak up behind me like that! I thought you were the crocodile!") The only genuine surprises on hand are the few moments when the film defies the expectations that have been programmed into our collective neurons by the past 25 years of horror movies: After the story appears to be over, just when you're sure there's going to be one more scare scene, no matter how little sense it would make . . . there isn't one.

The filmmakers earn points for embracing brevity rather than padding the proceedings. The movie times out at about 75 minutes from credit sequence to credit sequence. Miner really doesn't have much of a discernible touch, but at least Kelley has provided a good number of the smart quips he's so expert at. Not surprisingly, Pullman and Fonda do a nice professional job without having much by way of characters to work with, though Fonda's screaming ninny act — in contrast to all the stoic, get-the-job-done guys — seems about thirty years out of date.

The love/hate interaction between Platt and Gleeson is far more interesting. The Irish Gleeson (The General, Butcher's Boy) seems perfectly comfortable with an American accent. Platt's character — a conflation of the Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw characters from Jaws — gets most of the good lines. And Platt once again — as in The Impostors and Bulworth — proves that he is a brilliantly resourceful comic actor.

You've certainly seen it before, and you've probably seen it better. But for quick, drive-in-style fun, Lake Placid is perfectly adequate.Croc potshot: Bill Pullman (left) admires a blast from Brendan Gleeson.

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