By Thomas Puhr.
Tews blends green-screen footage, miniature work, practical effects, and a grainy sound design to mimic the look and feel of a ‘50s creature feature (that is, one which has smoked too much pot).”
The success of writer-director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews’ (try saying that name five times fast) Lake Michigan Monster (2018) is every aspiring filmmaker’s dream come true. After winning Best International Feature at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival and earning the praise of none other than Guy Maddin, it now arrives in a lovingly-packaged Blu-ray edition, courtesy of Arrow Video. This horror-comedy mishmash officially shares the same shelf space as any number of cult classics the boutique label has released, from Deep Red (1975) to Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Not bad at all for a micro-budgeted (apparently somewhere around $7,000) film shot mostly on the Lake Michigan shores of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The plot follows the absurd adventures of Captain Seafield (Tews), who vows to destroy the titular beast after it kills his father during a fishing trip. He enlists a ragtag crew for help: weapons specialist Sean Shaughnessy (Tews’ friend Erick West, who – we learn in a supplemental interview – was hired because “he owns a lot of weapons, just in his personal life”), sonar technician Nedge Pepsi (Beulah Peters), and disgraced Naval Officer Dick Flynn (Daniel Long). Needless to say, this basic story is no more than an excuse to throw as many visual gags, wide angle shots, bathroom jokes, self-aware dialogue, and silly props/costumes/effects at the wall as a 78-minute movie (including credits) can possibly sustain. As such, an ideal viewing would probably take place late at night, over a few drinks with some buddies.
At its best, Monster captures the goofy irreverence of early Abrahams/Zucker Brothers comedies or SpongeBob SquarePants episodes. Consider a scene in which Seafield reviews the mission with his crew. Their “headquarters” resembles a classroom, a suspicion quickly verified when a teacher interrupts the proceedings and tells them to get off school property. Among their increasingly-ridiculous game plans is operation “Master Baiters.” I admit that I laughed out loud a few times – which is more than I can say for most studio comedies – but the schtick wears pretty thin around the halfway mark (even for those of us who still appreciate a good pirate impression). All the same, the humor is never mean-spirited, and the crisp runtime and frenetic editing keep things moving.
What ultimately separates Lake Michigan Monster from just a bunch of neighborhood friends goofing around with a camera – and, I suspect, what earned Maddin’s approval – is its visual ingenuity. The black-and-white photography polishes the film’s (many) rough edges, and Tews blends green-screen footage, miniature work, practical effects, and a grainy sound design to mimic the look and feel of a ‘50s creature feature (that is, one which has smoked too much pot). The monster (also Tews, under what looks like ten pounds of makeup) doesn’t disappoint and would have filled a young Sam Raimi with envy. And you have to admire the crew’s gleeful scoffing at so-called budgetary constraints: Who said you need millions of dollars to shoot an elaborate underwater chase (replete with a knife-wielding ghost and a literal army of hooded phantoms, no less)? And here’s the kicker: the sequence actually looks good.
Also like Maddin’s work, the film exudes an unabashed love for its central location. A wholly unnecessary exchange between two characters critiques the bafflingly-early hours at which Milwaukee liquor stores close, and the appearance of fish sticks as a snack operates as a punchline alone. The film is as much a paean to the Midwest as it is to cheesy monster movies or genre spoofs. Even the special features exhibit a fondness for America’s Dairyland: In their commentary track, the cast and crew name-drop a beloved Milwaukee store from which they bought some props, and one of the many featured interviews takes place in a local brewery. As Barry Forshaw asserts in “Seeking the Lake Michigan Monster,” an essay included in the Blu-ray packaging, “people who know the locales enjoy a great many pointed references – although it is possible to get the joke without being aware of such things.” Indeed, the humor hinges less on regional knowledge than on one’s ability to tap into their inner middle-schooler.
Being an Arrow release, the Blu-ray is packed with other special features, the most fascinating of which is a split-screen breakdown of the aforementioned underwater chase, which allows viewers to simultaneously watch the finished product, green screen and miniature footage, and storyboard art. Other extras – such as an entire season of L.I.P.S., a 2016 web series featuring Tews and created by Monster editor/producer/co-writer Mike Cheslik – are intriguing in that they shed light on what would become their film debut, but aren’t particularly enticing as standalone pieces. L.I.P.S.’ special effectsmake Monster look like Avatar (2009)by comparison (I don’t mean that as a compliment), and its humor falls flat. No fewer than three audio commentaries accompany the film, one being a “drunk commentary” recorded by the cast and crew after a few rounds of beer. It’s a clever idea, but I can’t imagine anyone outside of their family and friend circles listening to the whole thing. I must admit I gave up about fifteen minutes in.
These extras do make one thing clear, though: Lake Michigan Monster was a true labor of love, one made by genuinely-talented artists. Whether or not it will have much of a shelf life remains to be seen, but the fact that it’s one of those rare passion projects with broader appeal is a small miracle in and of itself.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.