All at sea with the ‘Michigan Lake Monster’

❉ Arrow Video delivers silly, salty, seafaring tomfoolery with an infectious sense of fun.

The opening sequence of Lake Michigan Monster where eccentric sea captain Seafield (director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews) inducts his crew of equally zany would-be heroes on the plan to catch the mythical monster of the title and kill it really sets the tone of this anarchic, archaic and often hilarious feature film freshly docked onto British shores courtesy of cult purveyors Arrow. The plot really is just that too; gang of inept characters attempt to catch and kill sea creature for glory (and other more abstract reasons) which is really just a spearhead into offering the audience a glut of salty, seaweed-ridden gags from over exaggerated living cartoon characters. The film has been compared a lot to Spongebob Squarepants and that makes total sense.

We’re talking silly, sea-faring Python-esque tomfoolery here – but more-so explicitly from the visual style and comedic tone the film screams the work of Guy Maddin; especially his films The Forbidden Room (2015) and Brand Upon The Brain (2006). Director Cole Tews has already acknowledged Maddin’s influence previously so it comes as no surprise.  That said, Maddin’s intoxicating oeuvre is at times an inescapable, looming presence  here; the post-modern use of silent film aesthetics and cinematic artefacts have long been attributed as an auteurist style of his own, but which is also a stylistic gene pool that dances ever-so-closely to creative works of my own. For that personal connective reason, but not exclusively because-of that reason – I found myself very fond of what Cole Tews and crew set out to do with this film. They actively sought to make something which stood out from the endless stream of polished, digital-sheen of indie films usually of the horror and fantastical to present us with something unashamedly eccentric, fun and inventive. It certainly does stand out by not subscribing to what is mostly an acceptable pre-requisite in indie film-making’s technical assets in this age of sharp clarity and spotless 4K imagery.

The film moves at a break-neck pace which is punctuated by its amazing cutting-style. Shots blend and transition unexpectedly and form a beautifully flowing relationship with the moving camera and the many unorthodox and skewwhiff angles deployed to keep things strange and interesting. We find ourselves looking up characters nostrils with close up shots so tight and fish-eyed – even if it’s just for one quick cut. As a film-maker I had a ball watching its constant attention to presentation and love how busy they keep their frame, but also found myself wondering if it could sustain a feature length running time. There are times in Lake Michigan Monster where I found that it almost wasn’t the case. The gags coming in thick and fast along with the sprightly pace would show glaring errors in sequences that didn’t match the strengths of where I was initially hooked.

A film delivered in such a silly, surreal and slapstick manner doesn’t care much for plot or development either, and while this film does have a skeletal resemblance of such – mainly concerning the true intentions of the dubious Captain Seafield – it is hard to sell an audience on a scenario which is practically a comical sketch stretched out to feature length runtime.  In most comedy films the gags don’t always land but when they don’t here it threatens to jeopardise the film into outstaying its welcome but such is the fast delivery of its content that before long we’ve found ourselves something else to giggle at.

The most fun I found myself having with Lake Michigan Monster was the inventive economy of the sets and special effects. The filmmakers certainly knew the magical properties of working with black and white on a low budget and therefore knew what to obscure, what to show and what they could show and have the low budget function as part of the humour. That said, the film is gorgeous to look at in its sense of whirling emulsions and archaic riffing as though it was shot on reams of grainy 16mm film. It was in fact shot on a small D/SLR camera in largely guerrilla fashion and the textures were fixed up in a lengthy post-production process.

A breakdown of such effects can be seen in the extensive extra features where they amazingly show how they pulled off the ‘underwater sequence’ with insight into storyboards and pre-composited footage before the make-over of movie magic transformed it into what we see in the film. The textures themselves are wonderful – the balance struck just right to give the illusion of a celluloid fever dream and it just about gets away with hiding that digital sheen.  It may sometimes struggle to sway from the shadow of the Guy Maddin’s idiosyncratic style but at the same time it boasts a language all its own, and mostly out of low budget necessity. Shot on a meagre $7000; the aforementioned guerrilla approach to their film-making is evident in the use of locations and resources that were there for the taking – the lake itself and the submarine museum even serving to shape the film itself. Cole Tews’ friends and family fill the cast and all brought something to the table in order to see it made. It embraces the Corman-esque B-movie influences on its sleeve as well as the many early works of A-list directors Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi who had their start in comedic low budget horrors – especially Raimi when considering the many inventive uses of the camera.

It is impossible not to like Lake Michigan Monster; largely because of an infectious sense of fun that possesses the film not just on screen but in the making of it too. This is largely backed up by the fun the cast and crew have watching and talking about the film in the audio commentaries on offer; one sober and one drunk which fondly reminded me of the hilarious drunken commentary Trey Parker, Matt Stone and company did on the Troma Cannibal: The Musical DVD. They are also clearly proud of their achievements and so they should be. Other extras include interviews, behind the scenes photos, an extra critic’s audio commentary with Alexandra Heller Nicholas and Emma Westwood as well as the obligatory Arrow reversible sleeve.

Running away with the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the 2019 Fantasia Festival; Lake Michigan Monster is not going to be for the many but for the cinephiliac few, or for the groups of friends who like to gather of an evening for copious amounts of jazzy cigarettes and booze.  It isn’t particularly anything that will linger long in the mind, but it is certainly heaps of expressionist fun and a great debut for writer/director/ star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews. One wonders what he has up his sleeve for his next outing – what could he possibly follow such an overtly stylised, outrageous comic horror fantasy with? That remains to be seen, but the stigma of such a startling debut puts me in mind of another film and its director that shares the same black and white, live action cartoon lunacy: The Forbidden Zone (1980); a film so astonishingly singular that director Richard Elfman didn’t make another film that came anywhere near as close to its genius, and of course no subsequent film of his ever could.  

I am equally amazed and grateful that Arrow took a punt on bringing it to their label. They are one of the leading distributors of all things cult in the country and have a legion of die-hard fans who will happily buy anything they put out for all the love and attention they give each release. The UK is a hard sell on physical media content these days and there is very little room for anything that isn’t generic supermarket shelf fodder and nostalgia for anything made from 1994 backwards – so it is a huge welcome for something so strange, quirky and current to hit our shelves. 

Special Edition Contents

High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Two cast and crew audio commentaries featuring writer/director/actor Ryland Tews and actors Daniel Long, Beulah Peters, Erick West and editor Mike Cheslik – one sober, one drunk!
Critics’ audio commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood
Effects Breakdown comparison of the film’s underwater sequence, including storyboards and pre-composited footage
Dear Old Captain Seafield – the Captain Seafield theme song, performed by the Seafield Monster Sextet
Interview in a Cabin – interview with Ryland Tews and Daniel Long at the Fantasia International Film Festival
Interview in a Bar – interviews with the cast and crew at the Beloit International Film Festival
Interview by a Fire – interview with Mike Cheslik on Mark Borchardt’s Cinema Fireside radio show
The first season and pilot episode of L.I.P.S., Ryland Tews and Mike Cheslik’s hybrid animation/live action sci-fi comedy web series
Theatrical trailer
Behind the scenes photos
Reversible sleeve featuring original artwork by Jade Watring and newly commissioned artwork by Colin Murdoch
 Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw (FIRST PRESSING ONLY)

❉ ‘Lake Michigan Monster’ was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video, 2 November 2020. BBFC Cert 15. Running time 78 mins. RRP £24.99.

 Thomas Lee Rutter is a director and editor, and creator of Carnie Films’ folk horror short Bella InThe Wych Elm (2017), acid western Day of the Stranger (2019) and upcoming feature The Pocket Film of Superstitions (2021).

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