[Fantasia 2019] 'Lake Michigan Monster' is an endearing trip back in time to old-school creature features
Ahoy, mateys, and welcome to my review of Lake Michigan Monster, the strangest underwater adventure you’ll ever experience! Having played at Fantasia 2019 and banned in four of the five great lakes, this film has ghosts, zombies, phantom ships, rubbery monster on human loving, and it’s enough to drive you so mad, you’ll be talking like a deranged pirate afterwards, argh…
…Okay, enough of that. But really, films don’t get much quirkier than Lake Michigan Monster, a love letter to old-timey monster movies that sails back in time to when film was so campy, you could smell the s’mores cooking through the screen. An entertaining mix of 50s creature feature and German expressionist horror like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Lake Michigan Monster is a throwback written/directed by Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, making his feature debut. Though the film is complete insanity, the core of the story is pretty simple: an eccentric sea captain named Seafield (Tews) hires a group of specialists to hunt down and kill the mysterious monster that killed his father in Lake Michigan.
I think it would be safe to say that Tews is a fan of old-fashioned monster movies, because Lake Michigan Monster is a tidal wave of nostalgia. Tews and his team capture the aesthetic of a time when nearly every aquatic horror film was goofy fun, from the hazy, black and white edges of the frame to the purposely choppy editing and funky camera speeds that make characters look like they’re zipping through the scene. Paired with the sort of classic eerie music that elicits images of fog rising on the black and white water, Lake Michigan Monster is like some long lost treasure buried at sea and finally dug up for all of us to gaze upon it’s strange wonder. If you’re a fan of this era of creature features, then you’ll love this contemporary spoof on the genre.
Accompanying us on this voyage of doom is a cast of characters that, for better or worse, are like unwilling hostages. Tagging along with Tews as Seafield is weapons expert, Sean (Erick West), naval officer, Dick (Daniel Long), and your standard 50s female scientist with pulled back hair and glasses, Nedge (Beulah Peters). Tews plays Seafield as an eccentric maniac who is never not turned up to eleven on the crazy scale, providing all of the energy in a group that otherwise lacks it. Much of the dialogue/performances feel forced and tired, though part of that is because Seafield is just so over-the-top that it creates a stark contrast between himself and the others. To be fair though, do we really enjoy a lot of these classics because of the phenomenal acting? This is also the one area where the 50s aesthetic isn’t quite captured. Tews has the character stereotypes right, yet the dialogue is more modern, and appearances are slightly off, especially Nedge, who has a nose ring. This is all far from a deal breaker with the film, and hell, Tews probably intends for this to be a modern spoof on these films, but it keeps Lake Michigan Monster from fully taking us under its spell.
Tews clearly loves the old-school films which Lake Michigan Monster pokes fun at, but what’s really going to rub some the wrong way, like it did me, is just how “in on the joke” the characters are. Some of the humor works, like the fact that Seafield is leading the cast on an adventure to kill a sea creature…conducted entirely on shore. There’s an upbeat, quirky sense of comedy to the film, and Lake Michigan Monster is a boatload of laughs. But, like a Family Guy joke that never ends, some of it is bonkers to the point of being straight up obnoxious. I lost track of how many times Seafield felt compelled to say Sean’s full name, Sean Shaughnessy (get it), and lines like “now I know why they call him Dick, because he has a penis” are the sort that would get even the Loch Ness Monster to roll its eyes. Lake Michigan Monster is what I think I might imagine if I was on a boat in the middle of nowhere, downing seawater like it was liquid cocaine. This film is so cartoony, so downright outlandish, that it often walks the line between hilarious and fantastically stupid, but to its credit, never fails to be entertaining.
If I’m being honest, the enjoyment I got out of Lake Michigan Monster didn’t come from its bonkers characters or acid-trip humor, it came from Tews’ spot on representation of old-school monster effects. Everywhere this monster goes, we follow it through POV shots of rubbery creature claws extended out towards its victims for a vicious hug. If you didn’t know anything about the movie, you’d fully believe that Lake Michigan Monster was some undiscovered treasure from the 50s. Them, The Horror of Party Beach (not 50s but whatever), Tews was clearly inspired by them all, with their cheap effects and overdramatic musical cues. Even more impressive though is how well Tews captures an early 1900s depiction of an underwater, Mario-style battle between the monster and our heroes. I won’t spoil it for you, but the scene recalls images of Meilie’s A Trip to the Moon, with characters donning heavy eye shadow amongst a backdrop of “underwater” scenery. Tews’ directorial prowess is on full display during this epic, brilliantly designed finale that makes any suffering through the hit or miss comedy completely worth it.
Lake Michigan Monster is a film that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and you’ll find yourself lost in the convoluted plot if you try to follow it, but the basics are clear: Monster kills Seafield’s father. Seafield seeks revenge. Monster carnage and antics ensue. This cuckoo creature feature isn’t going to work for everyone, but Lake Michigan Monster is an impressive debut feature with a visual style that takes great care to pay homage to a period when movies were exciting and new and filmmakers wanted to experiment with anything and everything to put the dreams in their heads on screen. And at the end of it all, that’s what this sometimes too goofy, highly clever film is: a dream of sea monsters, pirates, and spirited adventure all leading to an unexpected ending good for one last, big laugh. You’ll want to keep your eyepatch on this one, matey.
By Matt Konopka