Monday, October 13, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Killer Croc Double Feature

It took a couple of attempts (had to return one copy of Lake Placid), but finally got my double bill of crocodilian action going this weekend. There are a ton of horror movies about crocodiles or alligators, but I decided to stick with two I'd seen before and enjoyed. I already watched the awesome Alligator  last year. Maybe next year we'll try Black Water or Eaten Alive.

Lake Placid
Movies set in Maine always take a bit more to swallow as a resident. I'm sure this is true of folks who live in other places when they go and see a movie set in their neck of the woods. It's always more remote, more scenic, and more dangerous in the movies. Trying to imagine a lake in Lincoln County that's a mile from the ocean, 25 miles from the nearest town, and that only has one camp on it? That's almost as hard to believe as a 30 foot croc having swum there from Asia. (Also - no brown or grizzly bears in Maine, sorry.) Now if the camp was owned by a rich person from away...

I'm not sure of the exact circumstances that lead to me seeing Lake Placid for the first time. Odds are I simply decided that the odds on seeing another giant crocodile film in the theater were pretty slim. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and about the time the deputy has his head chomped off I had bought in. Yeah, it was silly - but it was willing to embrace the silliness and toss in a little gore for spice.

I have friends who dislike the movie quite a bit. It was written by David E. Kelly, and I've heard it called "Ally McBeal in the Woods." Luckily I've never seen Ally McBeal, nor any other David E. Kelly show that I can think of (runs to IMDB). Oh, damn - I did watch Picket Fences. But I liked Picket Fences too. Ah well, the point is none of the stuff that seems to bother them - the woman angry about a relationship breakup (that sounds like a bad relationship anyway), the wacky characters defined mostly by quirks and bon  mots - none of that stuff bothers me. I dunno - maybe I was distracted by the giant crocodile.

The Medium
I ended up watching this via Amazon streaming. The only copies the local Bull Moose had were either Full Screen or the new Blu-ray. I like the movie, but not enough to fork out Blu-ray money for it. I'd purchased a Full Screen copy without realizing it and decided to return it, rather than deal with pan-and-scan. (I used the money from the return to pick up Cloverfield and [REC], so it wasn't a complete waste of time.)

The picture quality was good - it's been consistently better on Amazon than on Netflix lately. There are some really nice shots, particularly of the lake, so it was nice to have a good quality stream.

The Movie
A biologist studying beavers (shut up) in a remote Maine lake is savagely attacked and bitten in half (he's pretty lively for all that - at least for a few moments). The local authorities ask for an expert from New York to examine a tooth that's been recovered from the body and the museum sends Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda). Kelly isn't exactly a fan of fieldwork, but she's willing to go to get away from a co-worker with whom she's had a bad breakup. She gets to Maine and examines the tooth where she quickly identifies it.

Guess what it is. Go on, guess.

Sheriff Keogh (Brendan Gleason) and Game Warden Jack Wells (Bill Pullman) aren't sure the snarky (and somewhat flaky) paleontologist is correct, but they head to the lake to investigate. They're quickly joined by Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), an eccentric mythology expert who thinks that crocodiles are godly.

God, this really does sound stupid, doesn't it?

It all somehow works, though. The comedic bits and character interactions are all balanced by crocodile attacks and some pretty salty language from Betty White. She plays Mrs. Bickerman, the only resident of the lake and someone who readily admits to killing her husband while hiding the fact that she also knows about the monstrous crocodile. She's awesome. And really foul-mouthed. In 1999 I was not expecting that from the Golden Girl, so it made me giggle each time she muttered "cocksuckers."

I name all my cows 'cocksucker'

The alligator attacks are all well done and are generally suspenseful. The bit where the poor deputy is decapitated in a swim-by attack got a loud laugh from me in the theater, earning me several dismayed looks by my fellow audience members.

Pullman and Fonda are honestly a bit vanilla in their roles. Pullman in particular sometimes looks like he's only there for the paycheck. Gleason and Platt are pretty good, though, and their dynamic provides most of the fun as far as human characters go.

Are we having some kinda bromance thing happening here?

In typical giant "nature attacks" fashion an overly complicated plan to take the croc alive is hatched, leading to some fun with helicopters and cows in slings ("She looks like an enormous teabag.") Surprisingly, the monster survives the final encounter and is last seen headed down state on a flatbed. (I haven't seen the sequels to this movie - of which there are 2 - but I would hope the next one starts off with the croc breaking free from the flatbed on Interstate 95 around, say, Worcester.)

The Bottom Line
It's not going to be for everyone, but there's plenty of fun to be had in Lake Placid. There's quirky characters, action-packed set pieces and the occasional decapitation. I didn't expect much when I first saw it and was pleasantly surprised. Go in with low expectations and you might be surprised as well.

This is an altogether different film, though the basics are the same: disparate group of characters is menaced by enormous crocodile. There is some humor, but it is primarily a serious monster movie. It's one of the better "nature attacks" films I've seen, and I'd put it up there with Alligator as one of my top two crocodilian films.

Holy crap, I have a top ten list of crocodilian films.

I first saw Rogue on a whim. It was on Netflix streaming and I'd heard nothing but good things about the director's previous film, Wolf Creek. I enjoyed it immensely and was surprised at the overall level of quality.

The Medium
I bought the 'Unrated' DVD release of Rogue specifically for 31 Days. It looks pretty sharp, even on the big TV. I have no idea what was added to make this 'Unrated' - it seems substantially the same as the version I saw on streaming. (It's possible it was this version, come to think of it.) There are a handful of extras, including a making-of documentary and a commentary track. (There is a Blu-ray release, but there are no extras on the US version.)

The Movie
A travel writer, Pete (Michael Vartan) joins a disparate group of tourists on a crocodile viewing river cruise. Although there's a short encounter with some locals, the trip is mostly a pleasant diversion. When they are about to turn around and head back one of the tourists sees a distant distress flare. The boat operator and guide, Kate (Radha Mitchell) informs them that they'll have to check it out - despite the fact that she can't raise her base on the radio.

The characters are all quickly and economically presented - Pete is a world weary snob, Kate is the pretty-but-tough local who loves the land, there's the camera-nerd/jackass, the family with an ill member, the pushy housewife and others. It's all done fairly well and there are even moments that have a certain depth to them. One character quietly releases ashes into the river, observed only by the girl whose mother is sick. She turns and hugs her mother tightly. It sounds maudlin, but it was a lovely bit.

The movie is packed with recognizable actors. Michael Vartan was in Alias (and, in a bit of synchronicity, in a couple of episodes of Ally McBeal as well). Radha Mitchell was in Pitch Black and Silent Hill amongst other things. Sam Worthington plays one of the local toughs. There was a male actor who I knew I should recognize but just couldn't place until he'd been eaten - turns out he's Robert Taylor who's currently starring in the A&E series Longmire (as well has having played Agent Jones in The Matrix). And of course there's John Jarratt, who played Mick Tayler in Wolf Creek.

I'm gonna be in the highest grossing movie of all time? Well hot damn!

Eventually the boat finds a secluded area of the river and is immediately attacked by a huge crocodile. They wreck the boat on a small island which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't a tidal river. Eventually the tide is going to come in and they'll all be at the mercy of the croc.

It's a standard 'nature attacks' story, isolating a group of strangers and watching them struggle with the monster and each other. It's done extremely well here, though. There's real tension and scares to be had and the director, Greg McLean, does the smart thing by keeping the croc hidden or revealed only in pieces for much of the movie. There's a scene where the survivors are arguing about something and there's a splash. They all turn to find one of their number (who was standing too close to the river edge) is gone - you only see the barest glimpse of a huge tail disappearing beneath the water. The guy didn't even get a chance to scream. Where that sort of scene would have been played for laughs in Lake Placid it's all serious business here.

"... and that concludes our safety lecture for today."

I appreciated the fact that no one is a complete asshole. People do stupid, selfish things as the tension mounts, but they're understandable in context. Even the 'hero' is only put in the position to save someone by accident - he slips and falls into the croc's lair. All the actors do a good job, with no one standing out as a weak link.

The monster effects are top-notch when finally shown and the croc is scary as hell. The cinematography is also to be commended, with some of the most spectacular footage of the Australian countryside that I've ever seen. It might be full of killer crocs, but it sure made me want to go visit anyway.

The Bottom Line
Rogue is a top notch monster movie of the 'nature gone rogue' variety. It's above average in pacing, writing, acting, effects, and cinematography. If you see only one giant crocodilian movie, this is the one to see.

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