The Seasoned Ticket #54

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl opens this week, a not-too-great one that puts Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper in battle with giant alligators during a hurricane. The movie’s working an unexpected metaphor about the monsters that take apart broken families, but I don’t think Aja is up to the task of making that come alive.

So: Reptile movies. Here are two reviews, vintage pieces from the Everett Herald, on similar films: Steve Miner’s Lake Placid (1999), and Dwight Little’s Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004). I looked for my review of Anaconda, but I couldn’t find it, so I’ll leave that to my biographers. (By the way, as I have wondered nearly every day since, how did David E. Kelley come to write a giant alligator movie?) So: Lake Placid vs. Anacondas.

 

Lake Placid

The movie that giant crocodile fanatics have been waiting for all year is here: Lake Placid, a silly, irrelevant, and mostly enjoyable film.

There’s always room in the summer schedule for a unabashed drive-in movie. Yes, most of this summer’s offerings have been at the level of a drive-in picture, but Lake Placid actually means to be that kind of film. It’s a throwback to the fodder of the 1950s, essentially the umpteenth remake of The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Two twists on the formula:  the cast is not your second-rate collection of B-movie has-beens, and the script is by the award-winning (and obscenely prolific) TV writer David E. Kelley.

The setting is a lake in Maine, where a massive creature of some sort has been nibbling on local folk. Four people, each with some level of authority, converge on the spot, hunker down at lakeside, and argue about what exactly is stirring up the trouble. Two are natives. The sheriff (Brendan Gleeson, the Irish star of last year’s The General) is in favor of blasting away at the monster. A thoughtful game warden (Bill Pullman) takes a more cautious approach.

From New York comes a paleontologist (Bridget Fonda), who’s accustomed to working in a comfortable office, not a wilderness with ticks, mosquitoes, and (oh yes) giant crocodiles. The final member of the quartet is a show-off scientist (Oliver Platt) who loves his job almost as much as he loves himself. Platt, one of the premier scene-stealers in film these days, is giddy with insults and ego.

Kelley’s script throws these people together in a tense situation, and proceeds to have a great deal of fun with it. As the writer of Ally McBeal and Picket Fences, Kelley has proved himself an apparently bottomless fount of offbeat, whimsical dialogue.

The same goes here. This is at least as much a comedy as a horror movie, and the characters dislike each other so much their dialogue tends to be deliciously insolent. Kelley even throws in a little old lady who lives at lakeside and has a personal relationship with the giant reptile. She’s played by Betty White, whose foul-mouthed biddy routine is, as usual, quite welcome.

In fact, it’s almost a disappointment when a crocodile attack actually comes, as the horror stuff is poorly handled by director Steve Miner. The big croc himself is primarily a creation of computer-generated special effects, which lessens the scare factor. I found myself admiring the work of the digital animators rather than feeling scared. This wouldn’t be a 1999 film if it didn’t have a gross-out factor, which here takes the form of bodies sawn in half and an especially significant big toe.

Presumably the good cast responded to the clever script, which does kid itself around. Pullman is solid enough as the skeptical game warden, and Bridget Fonda is very appealing as the nervous (but never, it seems, tongue-tied) scientist.

Lake Placid isn’t much, but as a future video double-bill with Anaconda, it holds the edge on that 1997 thriller: at least the humor of Lake Placid is intentional.

 

Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid

Back in the innocent days of 1997, it was enough that one giant anaconda was on the loose, threatening you with its crushing power and single-gulp eating style. I think you’ll agree that we live in a very different world now. And so it is that the sequel to 1997’s Anaconda should boast not one giant bloodthirsty jungle snake, but dozens of the things.

This is Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Except for one joking reference, it has nothing to do with the original thriller that put Jennifer Lopez and Jon Voight at career lows. Except that the plot is a carbon copy, albeit with more evildoers. This time a pharmaceutical company has sent a crew to Borneo (filmed in Fiji) to hunt, well, the blood orchid. The rare flower contains a potential fountain-of-youth drug, and it blooms only once every few years.

All the company scientists are very attractive people. Morris Chestnut (late of Breakin’ All the Rules) and Matthew Marsden lead the crew, with KaDee Strickland (who might turn into something if she stays away from movies like this) and Salli Richardson-Whitfield providing the feminine wisdom.

They naturally arrive in the rainy season, when the only boat skipper crazy enough to take them upriver is a grizzled ex-Special Forces dude (Johnny Messner), aided by his Indonesian assistant (Karl Yune). Messner is either auditioning to take over the Snake Plissken role from Kurt Russell, or imitating the guy who does all the voiceover announcing for movie trailers. He’s growly.

After too much time spent getting to know these folks, the picture finally settles into the groove we’ve been waiting for. As one character puts it, the people are basically “mice in the aquarium,” and the giant snake is in the house. When the first attack occurs, the trekkers breathe a sight of relief. Hey, the anaconda could take days to digest its meal. And there couldn’t possibly be more than one of them. “Unless it’s mating season,” that is, and wouldn’t you know it….

There are some good overhead shots of an anaconda sliding its way around our travelers, and in general the snakes are better than the serpent in the first movie. That baby was unbelievable; these are just unlikely. We also get a man vs. crocodile wrestling contest that recalls the Tarzan days of Johnny Weissmuller hugging a fake gator. Plus there’s a pretty appealing monkey. None of this detracts from the essential preposterousness of the story or its presentation.

Journeyman director Dwight Little manages to make every location look exactly the same, while insuring the movie has no semblance of wit. I missed the goofiness of the first Anaconda, especially Jon Voight’s bad accent. There’s only so much that computer-animated effects can do.

 

Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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