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by Mike McGranaghan

Lake Placid is a deliberate attempt to create an old-fashioned creature feature. It is by turns funny in a tongue-in-cheek way and - if not exactly scary - filled with tension. If you're into this kind of thing, that is. To some, Lake Placid will ring of "bad movie." To others (and I include myself here), it's an enjoyably trashy experience.

Bridget Fonda plays Kelly, a museum worker assigned to investigate a mysterious gigantic crocodile in a Maine lake that has been tearing people to shreds. She is appalled at the idea of having to leave the city for the wooded area which houses the lake, but she goes to get a respite from her cheating boyfriend. Among the people she encounters are a Fish & Game Commission officer (Bill Pullman), who arrives to kill the creature, and a crocodile lover (Oliver Platt) who's as wealthy as he is kooky. Then there's the town sheriff (hilariously played by Brendan Gleeson) who can't stand the continual sarcasm of the other characters.

Living right off the lake is a foul-mouthed widow (Betty White) who seems to know something about the croc, although she is not willing to open up about it. (You haven't lived until you've heard the veteran actress spouting lines like "If I had a d---, this is where I'd tell you to suck it.")

Lake Placid basically gives you what you would expect from this kind of picture: several grisly crocodile attacks punctuated by the occasional one-liner. The formula is as old as the hills, but it works this time. One reason is that the screenplay was written by David E. Kelley, the creator of TV shows like "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice." Therefore, the one-liners have a lot more zing than those in other horror-comedies. The big joke in the film is that, in the midst of the bloodshed, the characters all have time to lob sarcastic jabs at the poor sheriff. Gleeson is terrific in the role, doing a continual slow-burn over the remarks.

The other plus is that Lake Placid actually has some tense moments. Kelley is smart enough to know that audiences have seen this kind of story before, so he adds little twists to the action that took me by surprise (one involves the actions of the old widow, another has to do with a helicopter and a cow). The special effects are pretty good, too. The creature moves in sudden bursts of violence, snatching people and animals with lightning-quick speed. Director Steve Miner (Halloween:H20) has enough patience to let tension build before springing the blood and guts.

The actors seem to be having fun with the mixture of Kelley's sharp dialogue and the inherent cheesiness of being in a giant crocodile picture. Pullman really gets the joke, acting like he can wear the beast down with menacing stares and grumbled speech. Fonda, who has acknowledged her love of horror films in the press, is clearly relishing the chance to act in one, and Platt uses this as an opportunity to go way out in left field as the rich wacko. But despite all this, there is no self-awareness on the part of the cast, all of whom play it perfectly straight. Their amusement shows not in the form of winking at the audience, but in the way they invest their parts with a loopy energy.

Okay, so Lake Placid is nothing more than a B-movie, but it's a witty one. It is tempting to say that the film doesn't take itself seriously, except that some of the "jump" scenes really work. I grew up watching this kind of thing on Saturday afternoon television and I still have a soft spot for it. Silly, yes, but never boring and always a prime example of good dumb fun.

( out of four)

Lake Placid is rated R for language and gory violence. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.

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