AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 78 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
A sea monster once killed Captain Seafield’s father during a fishing tip, and now he’s bent on revenge. However, he doesn’t think he can do the job on his own, so he hires three others to help him; aggressive weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy, discharged-for-misconduct sailor Dick Flynn, and “sonar individual” Nedge Pepsi. Each attempt to kill the beast fails though, and it almost kills Dick before letting him go. Then it presents the Captain with an egg….
Sometimes you watch a film made with very little money but with a lot of enthusiasm which, when it ends, leaves you with a feeling of uplift, a sense of joy at a group of people who just went out there and made a movie against all the odds. Lake Michigan Monster, which seems to be largely considered a spoof of ’50s creature features but comes across more as The Life Aquatic With Steven Zissou made by the Zucker brothers [though if anything it’s even stranger] is not perfect; its humour is very hit and miss and its in-your-face directorial style becomes wearing, especially the plethora of Dutch angles which soon began to make me feel – perhaps appropriately – sea sick. However, it’s full of charm and quirkiness and at times even makes a virtue out of its tiny budget, showcasing incredible creativity, the kind of creativity that’s lost when you have a loads of money, a big studio and all the CGI at your disposal so that you can realise pretty much anything the screenwriter has come with. It’s often really exciting watching stuff like this, because you can imagine the filmmakers saying “how on earth are we going to do this scene?”, and then finding a way to do it despite having so little money at their disposal that many others would probably just give up or not film the scene at all. The ultimate example of this in Lake Michigan Monster might be its final third which, even though CG is being used, has the pure joy and even in places the look of something George Melies could have made in the early 1900’s, with simple magician’s tricks and stage-like backdrops. As someone who, spurred on by Arrow’s recent release of A Trip To The Moon, has been discovering the joys of the work of this pioneer of cinema largely thanks to YouTube, I sat through this whole sequence with a goofy grin on my face.
But this isn’t to say that what proceeds this is not particularly worthy of praise, though I must emphasis that the comedy will not be for all tastes; if you’re watching this with a group [and this is a film that’s certainly best watched as a group with some booze even if it sounds like I’m encouraging non-compliance with certain “rules”], one half of your party is liable to laugh at one gag at the same time as the other half won’t laugh at all. The humour tends to lean towards the stupid. “Now I know why they call him Dick” says Seafield when Dick gets naked as part of a plan to kill the monster, it being assumed that the beast could be female and therefore unlikely to be able to resist a nude human male. “Why?” asks Nedge. “Because he’s got a penis” answers Seafield, a penis that by the way we don’t see because of highly obvious, not to mention distracting, blurring over the guy’s private area. Sometimes you’ll be more likely to laugh at the sheer idiocy of a joke rather than the joke itself, but you’ll still be laughing, and the gags come so thick and fast that I guarantee that you will chuckle at least a few times. I was surprised how little it pokes fun at old monster movies; certain cliches are played with and even subverted, but not nearly to an extent as you might expect. Some devices like sudden edits and blemishes on the picture seem more like writer/director/star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews just having as much fun making his first feature as he can with as much film-related jokery as he can afford to put in. In fact he possibly crams too much into it, at such a speed that his film never pauses for breath ever. One thing’s for sure though; he delivers a terrific comic performance as Seafield, a cross between Captain Birds Eye and Homer Simpson. Even if what he says isn’t always hilarious, his delivery and perfectly timed reactions more than make up for this. And he looks like a good mate of mine, right down to the beard, which certainly made it funnier for me!
Some slightly confusing cutting together and super-imposing of shots introduce our ‘hero’ and his lighthouse home, while a radio voiceover informs us that “no pieces of the body have been found, authorities say sea monsters aren’t real” several times, the final time finishing with “or for that matter lake monsters”. Then Seafield introduces himself properly to us on stage, and we get some Star Wars-style scrolling text. We meet his three recruits via some quick montages; weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy who’s able to juggle hand grenades, Nedge Pepsi who’s good with sonar [and wears George Romero glasses] and we see kissing a dolphin through a window, and Dick Flynn, former officer at the National Athletes Adventure Yunit, sometimes referred to as the NAVY. Well I thought it was funny, but then I also like the mo lei tau [“nonsensical”] school of Hong Kong comedy and the antics of The Comic Strip Presents. One thing I’m not too fond of is breaking of the fourth wall; it seems to me to be a lazy device in comedy, and we get a bit of it here, but not much, and one soon can’t help but laugh at the idea of four people trying to catch a sea [or lake] monster where only one of them is actually getting wet. Seafield doesn’t seem to be knowledgeable about much; he doesn’t even know what a fathom is when he clams that his father was killed a fathom away from land. And when attempts to kill the monster begin, he tends to just rush around and continually have a whack at the booze.
Over half of the film consists of these largely beach-based tries at slaying the beast which have names such as Operation Master Baitor, but that’s okay; this film was obviously so very cheap and the amusing interaction between the group members is kept up even if Tews is really the ball of energy that the others play off. Then the monster seems to catch Dick during one particular attempt to kill it, and indulge in something with him that we’re not quite sure of but which looks like it could be a bit sexual. Soon after this an egg turns up. Despite what it may seem, things get surprisingly unpredictable. A hell of a lot is packed in; hieroglyphics, a dream, a curse, a ghost ship, a ghost army, even a pirate [Seafield’s brother played by his father] – while communication at a long distance is carried out by tin cans. Well, it makes for a welcome break from phones. Yet the core of the story is really about family history and Seafield trying to come to terms with past events and wondering if revenge really is the best option or should he be prepared to dig two graves instead of just one. Without giving away too much, Seafield is revealed to be a rather sad individual whose wacky persona is misleading. I was surprised to find that this film had an emotional core, but it was a surprise that was most pleasant. Then, after the climax which seems to recall Zu: Warriors Of The Magic Mountain in one section, and which is the part where Tews really shows his considerable filmmaking chops – revealing considerable ingenuity yet still being able to create excitement – things conclude in a surprisingly downbeat, not to mention confusing manner, though a reprise of Seafield’s theme song sung by a severed head during the end credits will keep you smiling.
There’s one rather effective jump scare which startles because it’s in such a silly film, and there’s also a really suspenseful bit involving an unwinding chain, while Jaws-like moments involving the monster where you just see its hands work quite well. However, for the most part the tone is very light. This undeniably helps with moments where, for example, somebody is sliced in half and the film itself appears to have been sliced in half and briefly break down. A ghost army is just one person wearing a paper mask duplicated loads of times; it works well enough to sustain the section in which it’s featured, which contains probably the best of the many cartoon-like moments in the film where the ghosts all form a huge pole on the ship that Seafield is on. The scene aboard this supposed ghost ship has one of the more subtle laughs where, after Seafield has been scared below deck and we assume that he’s all on his own on this frightening vessel, we can just about make out tiny figures moving around on the top of the ship, but only if we’re really paying attention. A weird dream scene includes a shot where Tews attempts to stage a ship getting lifted up by the monster’s tentacles, and the digital things don’t look very good at all, though I guess it doesn’t matter much considering the film they’re in, even if it might have been preferable and even more appropriate if said tentacles had been rendered practically as they wouldn’t have looked any less convincing. Still, when we eventually see the monster in full, it’s largely a performer in a suit. Despite no effort being made to disguise some papier mache on the face, we still get quite a rather memorable and interesting creature, like Ursula from The Little Mermaid‘s done in the days of Universal Horror.
There’ s a lot of frantic editing which at times makes it hard to totally take everything in, speeded up film [sometimes where the music speeds up too], and odd angles; Tews just seeming to be tossing in everything but the kitchen sink that he can afford to. There are times when I wanted his film to be less busy, to relax for just a moment, but one can sense so much his love for cinema, what it can do, his relish of the freedom that he had when making his supremely goofy but very likeable film. While some of the repetition might annoy – how many times does Seafield have to shout out “Sean Shaughnessy!” when we ‘got it’ the first time? – but there’s an appealing, even childlike, innocence to the result too; one can almost imagine a group of ten year olds sitting on the corner of a school playground and coming up with all this, except that it also seems to have an awareness of a very wide range of cinema old and new, while the cruelty that kids can sometimes come up with is virtually missing. Apart from an eye-gouging which is of distinct metaphoric importance, blood and graphic violence is either ignored, soft pedaled or just shown symbolically in this good natured film which doesn’t seem to have a single properly mean bone in its body. While I didn’t read any other full reviews of it, I gather that Lake Michigan Monster has generally had a good reception. It definitely deserves it, and I’m well aware that some of the things in it which irritated me a little won’t bother others at all. Towe has quite a unique sensibility and a bright future in filmmaking ahead of him, while as for me; even if I wasn’t always laughing, I was certainly always smiling at what he’s produced here.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
High Definition Blu-ray™ (1080p) presentation
Filmed on cheap stock which has been made to look battered with scratches and marks, Lake Michigan Monster looks even more grainy than I would like, but the Blu-ray format still shows off plenty of detail.
Original lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 stereo soundtracks
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Cast and crew audio commentary featuring writer/director/actor Ryland Tews and actors Daniel Long, Beulah Peters, Erick West and editor Mike Cheslik
The first of two audio commentaries featuring the above crew is almost as funny as the film and never dull for a moment. Booze is clearly being drunk [and this is the sober commentary] as everyone mocks each other and the film while giving us lots of sometimes amusing information, like the weapons that Daniel Long [Dick] carries being all his own, an old lady thinking that Sean’s fake Amazon Halloween army costume was real and “hadn’t changed in years”, and that Erick West [Sean] played the monster when you just see her hands. Beulah Peters [Nedge] says how she had no idea that the footage would look the way that it does, Tews remarks that they were drinking for about 50% of the shoot [why doesn’t that surprise me?], and Cheslik tells us that the music score is all tracks from the De Wolfe library which they kept hearing in martial arts movies after they’d made this film! Guy Madden is mentioned as a strong influence; I must say I haven’t seen any of Maddin’s work. Even if you tire of talk tracks, give this one a go; you’ll want to finish it there and then.
Drunk audio commentary
The same lot as above return after a few more bevies to do another commentary, and it’s as loony yet constantly listenable as you would expect. An early exchange consisting of; “tell me something about dolphins”, “I know a lot about dolphins and their sex drive, but I don’t think that this is the time or the place”, sets the tone, soon to be followed by, “if only an anti-gun enthusiast like Harvey Weinstein were still with us, he’d lead us to a safer country”. Topics covered include moustaches, Tin Cup, Jason Statham replete with an impersonation, a government of vampires, and Sean Connery’s chest hair, while we learn some more productions facts, like how an AK47 was used to shoot the egg but a pistol had to be employed to make it explode. The quick turnaround between conception and release is surprising too. There should be more drunk audio commentaries.
Critics’ audio commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood
After the lightheartedness of the first two talk tracks, you’d understandably expect a commentary by two movie critics to be the ‘serious’ track; all scholarly and heavy, even if it’s for a very silly film. In fact it’s also quite jokey, the two having a very good rapport, and even feel that they have to give reasons for doing the track at the beginning of it. For the first third or so, they try to include as many nautical terms as they can, while throughout they discuss things like why monster movies appeal to children, Tew’s influences [ I’ve got to see some of this Guy Madden stuff that keeps cropping up in these commentaries], and wondering whether Tews played the monster at the end [the answer is actually in an earlier track] while showing their love for this film.
Effects Breakdown comparison of the film’s underwater sequence, including storyboards and pre-composited footage [9 mins]
The screen is split into four as we see different stages of the climax. Interesting, even if it’s a little disappointing to see that so much of it was done with CGI.
Dear Old Captain Seafield – the Captain Seafield theme song, performed by the Seafield Monster Sextet [5 mins]
I’ve now got this song stuck in my head and reckon that you will too. Here, the lyrics come up on screen so you can do karaoke.
Interview in a Cabin – interview with Ryland Tews and Daniel Long at the Fantasia International Film Festival [9 mins]
Benoit Mercier talks to Tews and Long who discuss why the film was made, how everything was scripted despite the film often having an improvised feel, and how everyone did various jobs on set because the crew was so tiny. We then see Tews introducing a screening of the film with a bit of a sing-song, and being briefly interviewed after.
Interview in a Bar – interviews with the cast and crew at the Beloit International Film Festival [12 mins]
This time West is interviewed along with Tews and Long in a bar [well there’s a surprise]. They discuss their own and each others roles, how there were loads of takes, and how the didn’t know the ending till really late in the day. They seem like such fun people to hang out with, though it’s a shame that we don’t see Peters in either of these two interviews.
Interview by a Fire – interview with Mike Cheslik on Mark Borchardt’s Cinema Fireside radio show [24 mins]
This audio interview begins with Borchardt telling Cheslik that he won’t need to ask him “lots of banal questions”, then proceeds more like a normal chat. It’s really laid back, and detours into Orson Welles and some kind of software, but we do get a bit more insight into the production.
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 [21 mins]
This surreal series, where many of the episodes only last a few seconds, was written by Tews and Cheslik with Tews starring as Ozanzigwan, an agent going through a bizarre alternate Earth trying to deliver subpoenas. Existing somewhere between Douglas Adams and Spongebob Squarepants, with a few real performers surrounded by animated tomfoolery, it’s even stranger than Lake Michigan Monster and therefore most definitely worth a watch, even if you may wonder if you’ve just taken something rather naughty.
Theatrical trailer [2 mins]
Behind the scenes photos [14 mins]
Reversible sleeve featuring original artwork by Jade Watring and newly commissioned artwork by Colin Murdoch
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw
Infectiously goofy low budget fun and ingenuity in a stacked Blu-ray release – Highly Recommended