General 8-24-2006

Minnesota Monsters

Britt Aamodt checks out "The Monster of Phantom Lake," a spoof of ‘50s horror schlock that was selected as an official entrant of both the Twin Cities Underground Film Festival (Sept. 1-3) and Tampa’s Independents’ Film Festival.

chris mike

It’s out there. Somewhere. It’s going to get you. The Monster of Phantom Lake…

If filmmakers Christopher R. Mihm and John Craig had to pinpoint the location of Phantom Lake, they might finger a remote, wooded location due east of Minneapolis, due north of Eau Claire and west of the realm of possibility. After all, The Monster of Phantom Lake is horror, and as its title so aptly recognizes, a card-carrying member of the monster-film subgenre.

It is also a campy, twisted, pastiche-laden, irreverent tribute to the genus of moviemaking that filled theaters when “I Like Ike” was a buzz phrase for post-World War II domestic retrenchment, a time when America’s war industry retooled to sustain a baby boom and a growing taste for all things suburban, electrified, and modernized. The 1950s ushered in TV dinners. They gave rise to communist fears and bomb shelters. They made Elvis king.

The 1950s, for better or worse, reinvented teens. Suddenly, the moody, self-obsessed offspring of America’s Greatest Generation were the target market for everything from poodle skirts to Hula-Hoops to drive-in movie tickets. They were kids with part-time jobs and disposable income; Hollywood banked on it.

James Dean was not an accident. Nor were the scads of B-grade movies spewing out of Hollywood movie studios either starring teens—Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf—or seizing on their predilection for intense emotion, bizarre plots and proofs of their elders’ moral corruptibility.

Mihm’s father George was a youth in the 1950s. He like others of his generation sought out the local movie house as an island of freedom in a world of parental authority, and as a source of entertainment. The price of admission bought a double feature.

Sometimes horror, sometimes science fiction, the B-grade feature was always cheaply and quickly put together—and it showed, in the wooden acting, the cardboard sets and the formulaic plotlines. But kids like George Mihm devoured them, and when they grew up, passed on that devotion to their offspring.

In 2000, the elder Mihm died of stomach cancer. And his son decided to make a movie.

Friends Mihm and Craig had always talked about making a movie, yet it wasn’t until 2005 that the former classmates decided to pursue their dream. The time was ripe. Not only had Mihm written a screenplay, but digital technology had removed economic barriers that for years had limited film production to the rich and well-connected. Suddenly, for a thousand bucks you could purchase a Canon PowerShot digital video camera and for a hundred more equip your computer with powerful video editing software.

Craig said the pair spent $1,500 on The Monster of Phantom Lake, a far cry from the typical studio budget. Even director Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, a byword in Hollywood for low-budget filmmaking, cost $7000.

The Monster of Phantom Lake, filmed in black-and-white and chock-full of ‘50s-era horror schlock, is a tribute to George Mihm. It is also amazing fun. A recent screening at Woodbury 10 Theatre played to a packed house, despite its 11:30 pm show time.

The movie opens as two faceless Joes, filmed from the shoulders down, topple barrels off a flatbed truck. The contents are tossed in Phantom Lake. The tranquil backwater is home to a deranged war vet, who conveniently takes a dunk in the mutagenic lake.

Meanwhile, a group of high school graduates hikes into the wilds for—what else?—a dance party. The usual suspects are there: the pretty girl, her handsome beau, the libidinous couple and the shy quiet girl who’s too low on the social totem pole to make a splash with the boys, but has that special quality possessed by all nerds that enables them to survive the threat of supernatural forces.

It’s a good thing, too, since the toxic lake waters have transformed Michael Kaiser, the war vet, into Michael-Kaiser-monster-from-the-deep, a shaggy, crepe-streamer concoction who is so laughably conceived that the young George Mihm would have been rolling in the aisles.

Mihm and Craig’s film does for ‘50s monster movies what Scream did for the ‘80s slasher-and-splatter gorefest. No cliché is sacred, no plot contrivance spared. Teens race against a monster who, though he shuffles like a geriatric ape, is always a footfall behind. The teens disband. They fly off in different directions. They trip and scream and die with the camera in their faces.

A Man of Science (producer Josh Craig) makes an appearance, pipe in hand, besotted graduate student in tow. He is the voice of reason in a world that has lost its rational underpinnings. He smokes. He sings. He ponders. And then…but that would give away the ending.

The Monster of Phantom Lake has played to audiences throughout the Twin Cities metro. On July 28, it was accepted into Tampa’s Independents’ Film Festival, and will be headlining the first annual Twin Cities Underground Film Festival, Labor Day weekend at Hotel Sofitel in Bloomington.