Lake Placid is now something of a lost classic, buried in time like so many other mid-budget movies of the 90s. That’s a shame because it’s a brilliant genre piece, featuring a screenplay by David E. Kelley and superb direction from Steve Miner. Part of its brilliance comes from its modesty, since Kelley and Miner are content to rotate through a series of different genres, finding an originality in the way they fuse them rather than through any overt gesture of reinvention. The most obvious of those genres is the creature feature, as Lake Placid is primarily about a giant crocodile that has somehow made its way into the titular lake in Aroostook County, Maine. Deputy Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) is charged with investigating the crocodile, and he’s soon joined by Sheriff Hank Keogh (Brendan Gleason), along with Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda), a New York reporter, and Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), an eccentric billionaire who has spent his life tracking down and photographing these enormous reptiles.
Steve Miner was an extraordinarily atmospheric director, and really luxuriated in fluid spaces, especially when they touched upon the American woods. Aroostook County, the wildest part of Maine, is therefore an ideal canvas for his vision, even before we get to the lake. Miner was also exactly the kind of director who knew how to relish the underwater space in a film like this, and turn it into a topography in itself. The action opens with a languorous pan over the water, followed by an extended underwater tracking-shot that takes us into the complexity of the crocodile’s nest, a bubble of air surrounded by sunken trees. As the film proceeds, Miner returns, time and again, to this submerged forest, which he turns into a more fluid and atmospheric version of the woods that surround it. Some of the most memorable moments come when we cut, seamlessly, between this terrestrial and submarine vegetation.
That sense of liquidity suffuses the whole film, and continues into the sweeping shot of journalist Kelly Scott’s biplane as she flies into Maine, cruising over the cosy lakeside community beneath her. From there, Miner alternates many of his scenes between the turbulent bottom of the lake, and the calm on top, resulting in sudden eruptions from below that are just as quickly subsumed back into the serenity of it all. These juxtapositions are all the more uncanny in that this serenity recalls the shimmering lakes of 80s nostalgia films like On Golden Pond, tinting the woods with sepia hues whenever water dominates the palette.
On top of being one of the best genre directors of the 80s and 90s, Miner was one of the best director of slasher sequels. With Friday the 13th Part 2, he introduced a new lushness to the Jason Vorhees franchise, while Halloween H20 would likely have had the same impact if it had occurred earlier in the Michael Myers cycle. Miner draws on that heritage here to fuse slasher and creature feature, frequently adopting slasher sightlines and drawing on the perky humour of slasher cinema. More specifically, he rearranges the lake and woods of Friday the 13th, the archetypal slasher topos, into a new configuration in order to accommodate the crocodile. In Friday the 13th, the action continually and mercurially shifted between woods and lake, only to finally converge them as Sean Cunningham revealed Jason’s backstory. From there, the franchise experimented with ever more ingenious ways to reimagine this space between the forest and water, culminating with a totally submerged Jason, and then an interstellar Jason.
Miner follows a similar trajectory in Lake Placid, focusing all the lake-thresholds around the space between water and shore. Most of the film sees the main characters camped in the woods, on the bank of the lake, trying to figure out the crocodile’s next move, even as we learn that crocodiles are most likely to attack at precisely this cusp between land and water. Since nobody takes the crocodile especially seriously at first, the campsite exudes the same oblivious abandon of the teen parties of slasher films. As in a slasher film, the crocodile first manifests itself through subtle creaks and cracks in the foliage, but drops back into the water just as quickly, forcing the characters to map this connective tissue between lake and land with more and more dexterity as the film proceeds. By the final scene, all the suspense has condensed to the small zone between the shore and the point where the lake floor drops off.
This imbues the crocodile with the same circumambient omniscience as the classical slasher. Yet Miner isn’t content to just fuse slasher and creature feature, so he adds a third genre ingredient into the mix: screwball. We see this screwy energy immediately in the fast-paced dialogue and ironic repartee between Jack and Kelly, which often seems comically at odds with the monster circling around their interactions. Yet the film also follows a broader screwball trajectory – what Stanley Cavell described as the pastoral interlude, in which a warring couple retreated to the New England wilds to rehabilitate their relationship. While Jack and Kelly don’t retreat together, they’re both fish out of water (so to speak) by the time they arrive at the lake. He lives in Maine, but he doesn’t have much jurisdiction over the lake, as the local Sheriff continually reminds him, while he feels like an urbane outsider in comparison to Delores Bickerman (Betty White), the kooky old lady who lives right on the lake. Kelly has followed a more traditional trajectory, only taking the job in Maine to escape a messy breakup in which her partner had an affair with her best friend right under her nose.
While Jack and Kelly may be outsiders, so are all of the oddballs who descend upon this enormous lake. Hector, Platt’s character, is a millionaire playboy who travels the world at leisure, and arrives without any warning to help hunt down the crocodile. Similarly, Sheriff Hank has an Irish brogue that’s never explained beyond Hector’s offhand comment that “your accent is a mystery to me.” Only Betty White’s Delores is a genuine local, but she’s so identified with the lake and the crocodile that she makes everyone else seem even more foreign: “I’m rooting for the crocodile – I hope he swallows your friend whole.” As a band of outsiders, this eccentric ensemble cast all participate in the main project of the screwball pastoral interlude: embracing their atavistic selves, and getting in touch with nature, to achieve the requisite catharsis to return, renewed, to the world of humans, cities and culture.
In most of these pastoral interludes, Wasps had to take their acronym literally, and discover the animality in their eccentricity, in order to inject a new vitality into their urban selves. Yet Lake Placid presents them with an even more dramatic outsider – the crocodile itself, which is comically incongruous in the Maine woods. It’s not just any crocodile either, but an Asian Pacific crocodile, meaning it comes from the farthest possible crocodilian population on Earth. No living creature could be as out of place in Maine as this animal, which becomes an incentive and vehicle for all the characters to discover their atavistic selves in turn. Kelly points out that every ancient culture deified crocodiles, who were “more worshipped than Jesus,” while Hector, a mythology professor in his spare time, turns down a shot at casual sex to achieve his ultimate goal of staring the crocodile deep in the eyes and gazing into its very soul. In a great riff on Betty White’s legendary love of animals, it turns out that Delores has single-handedly nurtured the crocodile, “like a pet that lives in the wild,” even though (or especially) because it killed her husband and installed itself in his place as mystical patriarchal signifier.
In the end, then, this band of outsiders end up sympathising with the crocodile, collapsing it into the fluid space between water and land, and using both to rehabilitate and restore their relationships to themselves and each other before they embark for the wider world once again. By opting to conserve the crocodile, they’re generalising the screwball comedy of remarriage into a broader reparative mindset, not focused exclusively on romantic relationships any more, although the film does end with a superb moment of screwy coupledom. After a suspenseful ending that jettisons us right at the nexus between lake and shore, Kelly asks Jack “does nobody ever make a move in Maine?” before they reflect that they “already miss the crocodile.” And the crocodile is easy to miss, since it’s the motor engine of a genre flow, a cinematic desire and a mid-budget spectacle that doesn’t exist in quite the same way any more, which perhaps explains why Lake Placid is so compulsively rewatchable.