Fantasia 2019: Lake Michigan Monster
Filmmakers love to call their work a “love letter to the old B movies”. This is something we hear constantly in big budget genre filmmaking these days. Typically it just works as a defense for the more silly parts of an otherwise very expensive and serious film, but in the case of Ryland Brickson Cole Tews and his directorial debut, Lake Michigan Monster, there is no better way of describing it. Shot in black and white, and with a skeleton crew, this movie is about as “do it yourself” as you can get and as close as you'll ever see a true ‘50s style B monster movie existing today. Tews struggles a bit with tone, and the schtick will undoubtedly turn some viewers off, but if you can get into everything it has to offer, there is a lot to have fun to be had here.
At a whopping seventy-eight minutes, there isn’t too much in the way of plot to worry about. After an eccentric ship captain named Seafield (played enthusiastically by Tews himself) loses his father to a mysterious beast in the depths of Lake Michigan, he brings together a ragtag crew to try and slay his father's killer. From the public shores of the lake they continuously try and fail to kill the beast using Sonar 2000 and a small armory of weapons. After a series of failed attempts, Captain Seafield ends up having to take matters into his own hands.
It’s a paper-thin plot but that also leaves a lot of room for the cast to have fun leaning into the broad humor that populates the entire film. Not every joke will land but for every few that miss there is one that will bring you to your knees. Jokes range from a character being named “Sean Shaughnessy” and having his name said in full whenever he is acknowledged, to a man being impregnated by the monster simply because he went into the water naked. It’s super silly and never takes itself seriously even for a second.
This is all accentuated by the visual effects and editing done incredibly by Mike Cheslick. Lake Michigan Monster is basically seventy-eight minutes of Cheslick showing off and having the time of his life doing all sorts of interesting visual tricks and edits. The film is not only shot in black and white, Mike ends up making the entire thing look like some lost film reel from the ‘50s complete with cigarette burns, noise, and the snap crackle pop of celluloid spinning. When I wasn't laughing I often found myself dazzled by the film’s tricks.
As impressive as that all is, it is still a schtick, one that I’m sure will not work for everyone as relying on a visual gag and broad humor can only go so far. They were smart to keep the runtime short but even so there are moments where the film shows it seams and for some it may be enough to knock you out of the film entirely. For me, oddly, I found that I enjoyed the gimmick the more the movie went on.
Being produced by a skeleton crew the movie only stars a handful of people with minimal costume and set changes. Tews is wonderful as the over-the-top Captain Seafield; he goes as big as he can and the film is better for it. The same goes for the rest of his crew including Nedge Pepsi played by Beulah Peters, Daniel Long as the stoic Dick Flynn, and Erick West has a fun turn as Sean Shaughnessy. All are giving big, goofy performances that don’t always work but are always appreciated. There's a moment where they do one of the only wardrobe changes of the film and the cast’s ability to play it totally straight makes it one of the best comedic bits of the film.
While mileage will undoubtedly vary from viewer to viewer, Lake Michigan Monster has a lot to offer as an exercise in DIY filmmaking. In a time where $200 million movies seem to be lacking any kind of creativity, it is wonderful seeing a film that is teeming with it. We can cry all we want about the death of cinema but as long as there are passionate people like Tews and his crew making movies, then the spirit will live on.