Starring Josh Craig, Leigha Horton, Deanne McDonald, Justen Overlander, Rachel Grubb, Brad Tracey, Lindsey Holmes, Michael Kaiser
Written & Directed by Christopher R. Mihm
The classic and not-so-classic B-movies of the 1950’s are a bygone film genre that you either look back on with fondness or contempt. You either have a soft spot in your heart for such films, even if you often wield a degree of mockery directed at their obvious deficiencies, or it’s a genre that you look upon with scorn and think “good riddance.” If you fall into that latter category then I’d advise you to stop reading now because the film being reviewed is all about that soft spot.
Recent years have seen quite a few motion pictures, almost always of the very low budget variety, spring up that are designed to pay homage to the sci-fi, horror, and creature features of the “atomic age” while at the same time poking fun at their mannerisms and low rent nature; The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra being the most well known of these. While these homage-spoofs are often hit & miss in their own quality, the fact that they exist at all is proof positive of the popularity these movies from over half a century ago continue to possess even now into the 21st century and serve as another good example of many people’s general dissatisfaction with such similar-themed movies made today.
I mean, honestly, the modern creature feature is really just a slasher movie with a monster or mutant of some sort in place of the masked killer. No doubt the atomic age movies were more innocent that today’s films, but they also had a sense of wonder and awe to the proceedings that is sorely lacking today. The Monster of Phantom Lake is the latest of these tongue-in-cheek homages to emerge and if not for the lack of some judicious editing it could quite possibly have been the best of the lot.
Professor Jackson and his grad student assistant, Stephanie, have come to Phantom Lake for some environmental research and are mystified by the appearance of mutant, eight-legged frogs and a mysterious mud-like substance with radioactive properties, amongst other anomalies. Student and professor are also trying hard not to give in to their passion. Actually, Stephanie would love for the Professor to return the feelings but he seems either too unwilling or to aloof to do so. There’s also the matter of their extreme age difference. After all, he’s 31 and she’s 25. Oh my.
A quintet of high school students celebrating their graduation with a little woodland partying have also arrived at Phantom Lake. Paired off into two couples, one contemplating moving away and the other considering whether they’re ready to go all the way, the fifth wheel of the group is Elizabeth, a nebbish old spinster in a teenager’s body who only got invited along because she’s best friends with one of the girls. The other three teens can’t seem to stand her in great part due to her nervous fraidy cat personality that becomes especially annoying to them after being spooked by tales of “Lobo,” a WWII veteran turned hermit said to roam the woods near Phantom Lake after going crazy. Elizabeth mostly sits on a tree stump either sulking or frightened while the teen couples dance around her as only whitebread Fifties teens could.
Unfortunately for all of them, someone’s been dumping atomic waste into Phantom Lake and there is indeed a crazy vet known as Lobo skulking about the woods. Lobo takes a header into Phantom Lake in the very spot that some of this atomic waste had just been dumped and is transformed into a murderous half-man/half-algae creature. The monster of Phantom Lake will also take a special liking to young Elizabeth since she just happens to be the spitting image of his, well Lobo’s, late wife.
Writer-director-producer Christopher R. Mihm has crafted this Fifties monster movie homage to capture the look and feel of those films with tremendous affection. Shot in glorious black & white, The Monster of Phantom Lake may not have been made with a lot of money but it sure was made with a lot of heart. The dialogue, the mannerisms, the clothing, the tone, the look, the vehicles, the music, etc. – Mihm nails them perfectly. I mean this thing is designed to feel authentic right down to the scientific gizmos and gadgets of the time the Professor and Stephanie use and the radio the teens dance to.
Probably the hardest aspect that filmmakers trying to recreate the feel of a retro monster movie of a specific era that Mihm succeeds at is the dialogue and how the performers recite it. Mihm gets many pleasant performances from this enthusiastic cast of virtual unknowns, all of whom understand how to deliver their dialogue in that slightly stilted style 50’s B-movie actors were known for. Doing so adds a layer of affectionate humor that’s amplified given that a lot of the dialogue is sprinkled with a surprising amount of wit, occasional double entendres, and a couple of running jokes. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments in hearing such things as the Professor firing off a chauvinistic non-sequitor about not caring about whatever it is that women talk about when they get together or the dimwitted, canoe-paddling cop volunteering an odd fact about frogs that most sane people probably aren’t aware of.
Of course, then there’s the matter of the monster, which is truly in the vein of a cheap drive-in movie monster of old. The half-man/half-algae monstrosity is reminiscent of the Creature from the Haunted Sea by way of Larry Buchanan. I personally likened it to looking like the lovechild of the Smog Monster (from Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) and Woodsy Owl. Some will no doubt scoff at the cheapness of the monster costume, but isn’t that sort of the point? Doesn’t a lot of the fun that comes from watching these old atomic age monster movies stem from laughing at the cheap-looking (but often imaginative) monster costumes, as opposed to these days when you watch the cheap, computer-generated monsters that regularly appear in Sci-Fi Channel original movies and find yourself longing for those clumsy man-in-a-rubbersuit monsters of yore? And as in the movies of the past, the monster isn’t fully shown until about two-thirds of the way in; only its arm appears on-screen during attacks up until that point.
As faithful as The Monster of Phantom Lake is to the films it both honors and pokes fun at, the one area Mihm isn’t faithful – and the movie suffers for it – is running time. The average B-movie back then generally clocked in somewhere between 60-80 minutes, rarely longer. The Monster of Phantom Lake clocks in around 97 minutes and really could have used some tightening up. Mihm makes a few amateur filmmaker mistakes by allowing some shots to linger on too long, others that could easily have been trimmed down, and leaving in a couple of repetitive scenes. For example, there’s a rather lengthy scene where Stephanie and the three teen girls sit around gabbing about their relationships, stuff that’s pretty much already been established for us in prior scenes. Poking fun at the Fifties teen movie trend of having at least one rock’n’roll musical number tossed in, Professor Jackson breaks out the guitar to perform a silly little ditty. It’s an amusing song that still could have been cut down by at least a verse. Another cliché of the time is that of showing us the main characters taking long walks through the woods, one that Mihm works in, which would be perfectly fine if he didn’t do it several times. Sometimes you can be too faithful for today’s audiences.
Because of stuff like this the material begins to strain and the movie starts to drag in places around the one hour mark. Granted, pacing issues were a common fault of the very films this one is emulating, but again, those films rarely ever ran longer than 80 minutes. There’s just no justifying this film being as long as it is.
But I don’t want that quibble to scare people off from checking out what is otherwise a wonderful little film. Mihm had been offering a DVD of The Monster from Phantom Lake on the film’s official website but has just stopped now that he’s signed a distribution deal for an official DVD release in the first quarter of 2007. The movie works as both a loving homage and a loving parody and if you have any love for the B-movies of the atomic age then you should keep an eye out for this one when it arrives next year. In the meantime, check out the website.
They just don’t make them like they used to – although a lot of people sure do seem to be trying, and Christopher R. Mihm is poised to try it again with two more atomic age b-movie homage’s: It Came From Another World (now in post-production) and Cave Women on Mars (slated to begin shooting in summer 2007). If The Monster of Phantom Lake is any indication of what’s to come, fans of the genre and the genre of spoofing said genre are in for a real treat.
3 out of 5
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