Ryland Tews’ affectionate homage to 50’s B-horror will win your heart as it drags you to your watery doom.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
The trailer for Cats was released last week, and it was greeted with exactly three reactions: a small number of people were legitimately excited about it, some found its very existence a grievous offense, but most found it a welcome, baffling respite from the crushing bleakness of current events. A movie like Cats may not be high art, but it’ll carry you away for a little while, and we need that right now. Ryland Brickson Cole Tews’ Lake Michigan Monster, an extremely loving homage to 50s B-horror, serves that same role, existing in a charmingly low budget universe that’s a little bit SpongeBob SquarePants, a little bit Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and a whole lot of Cabin Boy. There’s no deeper meaning to it, no allegory, it’s just its very own thing, and it’s delightful.
Tews stars as Captain Seafield, who tells a tale about his father’s fatal encounter with a fearsome sea monster, which mostly appears as just a pair of lumpy, giant claws (it does fully show up at the end, and you’ll never imagine what it actually looks like). Seafield isn’t a very good sea captain (he doesn’t know what a fathom is, and dips fish sticks in whiskey), but he has spirit and temerity, and seeks vengeance for the death of his father. To assist in his quest, he gathers together the “team of the century,” consisting of weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy (Erick West), sonar technician Nedge Pepsi (Beulah Peters), and Navy veteran Dick Flynn (Daniel Long), discharged after engaging in sexual misconduct with musical instruments.
Seafield comes up with “Operation Annihilation,” a foolproof plan to capture the monster. When that plan fails, the team moves onto “Operation Naughty Lady,” then later “Operation Master Baiters,” and eventually “Operation Excuse Me, Time to Die.” As it turns out, Seafield doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, and the other team members aren’t much more competent. One of them is killed by the monster, and another accidentally fertilizes one of the monster’s eggs, which looks like something Mario would burst out of while riding Yoshi. Not even destroying the egg seems to bring Seafield any luck.
Tews’ genuine love for the genre (not to mention his love for Milwaukee) comes through in every frame.
When it becomes apparent that Seafield isn’t exactly who he says he is, the rest of the team abandons him, and he must hunt down his undersea nemesis alone. This forces him to travel through aquatic catacombs, and pull together a ghost army for a final strike. Will Seafield and his army be triumphant? Well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
No, really, you should absolutely see Lake Michigan Monster.
There’s a certain cynicism in homages to old horror and sci-fi movies, the sense that the filmmakers are saying “yeah, we know how dumb these were, don’t go thinking we actually enjoyed them or anything.” In Lake Michigan Monster, Tews’ genuine love for the genre (not to mention his love for Milwaukee) comes through in every frame. A movie that features a vengeful wraith with a seemingly endless supply of weapons (including throwing knives, a bow and arrow, and a wrench) wouldn’t normally be described as “cute,” but that’s what this is. It’s a cute, funny movie, with hilarious one-off lines, like Seafield claiming that his first date with his wife was at a “haunted beer garden,” or, when the team member who accidentally fertilizes the sea monster’s egg protests its destruction, Seafield asks “Were you really going to raise a grotesque hellspawn, in this economy?!?” It sounds contradictory, but the level of care that went into the deliberately cheap looking special effects is both touching, and admirable. Tews knew exactly what look he was going for, and accomplished it.
It’s also, occasionally, a musical. Lake Michigan Monster tries for a few things, and mostly succeeds at all of them, a remarkable achievement for a movie that probably started out with the phrase “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” Clocking in at not even an hour and twenty minutes long, there’s not a bit of self-indulgence to it, unless you count Tews casting his friends, none of whom appear to be natural actors, but hey, when you’re working with a limited budget, you have to cut corners somewhere. And anyhow, the movies he’s parodying weren’t known for their Olivier-level performances either. You’ll be too distracted by the both amusing and oddly impressive stop-motion and miniature special effects to notice. Though likely to get lost in the festival circuit shuffle, hopefully audiences will give Lake Michigan Monster a little love. It’s like getting a warm hug from a scaly beast.