You'll never know what bit you.
I seem to be the de facto horror fan here at DVD Verdict, and here is my latest verdict in the genre. I enjoyed Lake Placid, but it failed to garner my wholehearted enjoyment.
"This year's Anaconda!" So proclaims the blurb on the back of the box. That may strike some of you in different ways. Personally, I went into both movies with an open mind, and came out wholly unimpressed, though I did prefer the big crocodile movie to the big snake movie. You see, Anaconda took itself too seriously, while Lake Placid doesn't take itself seriously at all. But then, that's its biggest drawback. It says something when the top-billed actor describes a movie thusly: "I think it's like some kind of weird dog that's got a lot of breeds in it."
Like the family tree of a mongrel, Lake Placid lacks focus, and I'm going to lay the blame solely at the feet of writer and producer David E. Kelley. That name should ring a bell for anyone who hasn't been in an entertainment coma. He is the creator of TV shows like Picket Fences, The Practice, and Ally McBeal. The only one of those I've actually seen is Ally McBeal. The show is funny, but only to a certain point. It lacks cohesiveness—is it a lawyer drama? A soap opera? Or a sitcom? Make up your bloody mind, and eat a Whopper every so often! But I digress. That same lack of single-mindedness is evident in Lake Placid. It's hard to be both a floor wax and a dessert topping. One minute it's a horror movie, the next a comedy, and sadly this flick fails at both.
Black Lake (apparently, the name Lake Placid was taken, or wouldn't market the film as well, I'm not sure which) has a 30-foot problem. A crocodile of said length and indeterminate origins has made its presence known by eating half of a game warden who was tagging beavers. A motley crew is assembled to find out what is out there under the murky waters. Jack Wells (Bill Pullman, Independence Day, Lost Highway) is a sarcastic Fish and Game Department ranger. Sheriff Keough (Brendan Gleeson, Far And Away, Braveheart) is a no-nonsense cop who was present when the first man was bitten in half. Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda, Jackie Brown, A Simple Plan) is a paleontologist from New York City who hates the outdoors. With the help of several deputies (who should be wearing red shirts a la Star Trek), they attempt to find the croc in the lake. They are joined by an unconventional, rich mythology professor, Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt, Executive Decision, Bicentennial Man). Cyr has a peculiar fascination with crocodiles, and is the only person who wants to capture the animal alive. Naturally, he clashes with Wells and Keough, who want nothing more than to find the creature so it will stop killing people. A key piece to the "puzzle" seems to be an eccentric old lady (Betty White, The Golden Girls) who thinks of the crocodile as her pet.
Naturally, there is a bitter showdown between the beast and people armed with tranquilizer guns. Mayhem ensues, major stars who contractually cannot be killed off are threatened, and a second crocodile materializes out of nowhere, all in a slight 82 minutes. It's a fun ride, but not as enjoyable as the movies to which it can obviously be compared: Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Deep Blue Sea. Each of those movies was scary, but with the right note of levity to keep them out of straight horror territory.
It will probably come as no surprise to DVD buffs that Fox did a mediocre job of producing the DVD of Lake Placid. It's a shame that a company with such a catalog of high quality transfers like the Alien Legacy box set or Strange Days can do such a poor job on everything else. It's equally disheartening when other major summer-of-1999 movies (of equal or lesser quality) have been given red-carpet special edition treatment, like Wild Wild West, The Haunting and The Phantom Menace. Oh wait, scratch that last one. My mistake.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
First up, the transfer. Lake Placid is presented in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen. Overall, it's a good transfer. I noticed no digital artifacts, though there was a small amount of NTSC moiré shimmering. Shadow detail was excellent, and colors were accurate. But the picture lacked the sharpness and detail that an anamorphic transfer would have provided. Perhaps the studios don't realize that it's not just the 0.02 percent of the population who own 16x9 sets that benefit from anamorphic transfers; we all get a crisper, more detailed picture.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and in Dolby Surround. Dialogue had that unnatural, ADR-processed sound to it in many scenes. The score and effects were mostly separated across the front and center channels, with the rear and subwoofer getting very little use. I didn't bother to see Lake Placid in the theatres, so I can't comment if the sound mix was like that theatrically. How hard is it to utilize the rear channels when the effects track features crickets chirping at night?
If I thought the audio and video were adequate yet unimpressive, I saved my biggest disappointment for the extras, or lack thereof. A typically self-serving five-minute featurette, cast bios, three TV spots, and the theatrical trailer are all that are provided. The featurette is mostly clips from the movie, with a few interviews and an ever-so-slight look at the animatronic crocodile. The trailer and TV spots are all matted with stereo sound. I tried to view the bios, but they are printed in a very tiny font that rendered them unreadable from 14 feet away on my 20" TV. If I have to get up off my couch, they're not worth reading.
It's bad enough that Lake Placid wastes the acting talents of its principals. It's even worse that it is a poor showcase for the magic that Stan Winston and Digital Domain can bring to the screen. For those of you unfamiliar with his name, Stan Winston is an unparalleled special effects genius. A short list of his other efforts includes the Terminator movies, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, Jurassic Park, and Aliens. He is also one of the co-founders of Digital Domain, the closest competitor to George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic for quality computer graphics work. The animatronic and CG animals are quite believable, but do not receive nearly enough screen time. The draw of big animal movies is seeing the big animals doing their thing: killing. Instead, we get actors clowning around.
Lake Placid is better than Anaconda, but only because the acting is a notch better. Makes me wonder what would happen in a Celebrity Deathmatch between the two CG creatures.
Lake Placid is fun, and will entertain non-discerning horror fans or those that watch When Animals Attack! specials on the Fox Network. For a non-anamorphic transfer and piddly extras, its $34.99 price tag is a slap in the face. It's worth a rental if Deep Blue Sea is out of stock.
David E. Kelley, the court hereby decrees that your 15 minutes of fame have expired. Your bulletproof Hollywood Golden Boy status is hereby revoked. 20th Century Fox, you are invited to join the 21st century, already in progress. Anamorphic transfers and quality extras are not too much to ask, particularly for the exorbitant prices with which you gouge the public. The prosecution's demands for restitution will be honored. Court is adjourned.
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• Making-of Featurette
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