Shadow Creek & the Family-Friendly Horror: An Interview with Christopher Mihm

By: Erik Childress

A few weeks ago I was intrigued by an e-mail I received introducing me to an “experienced and award-winning” director named Christopher Mihm. Truth be told I had never heard of the gentleman, nor of what he’s directed or the awards he had won. Yet, here he was, a “horror film expert” claiming to have the know-how on the downfall of “R”-rated horror. This was all in the wake of the successful first weekend of 1408 and seemed like a rather simplistic view put out there by the Nikki Finke’s of the world. Having recently caught up on a showing of Hostel Part II in-between screenings at the CineVegas film festival, I was certainly no fan of the direction horror was headed if Eli Roth was a new “Icon” of the genre as professed in a recent G4 series. But at the same time I am also no fan of those looking to take down such films in the name of some higher morality.

Doing some background research on Mr. Mihm I visited the website of his company, Shadow Creek Studios. Independent as they come, Christopher had directed two features as throwbacks to the B-movie era of science fiction. The Monster of Phantom Lake and its sequel, It Came From Another World! resemble the drive-in double bills of the ‘50s, complete with black-and-white stock and certainly no gray areas when it comes to issues about environmental meddling. Fearing a variety of other matters would also be free of the gray zone, I chose to speak with Mr. Mihm to see if his views were set on a singular color scheme that blocked all passion for anything blood red. Instead, I found a very lively and intelligent discussion on the weekend where the latest torture entertainment competes with a darker and “less magical” Harry Potter according to some critics who are missing what is magical about the series.

So Chris, give us the background on Shadow Creek Studios.

Shadow Creek Studios began with the dream of Tim Braun. Tim Braun is the owner/operator of Braun Media Services which began life as a content distribution company that inadvertently got sucked into becoming a CD & DVD replication/duplication house. Though there was (and to a lesser extent these days, continues to be) a market for the service, Tim’s ultimate goal was always to create a company that would first and foremost create original content that falls into a specific “family friendly” niche without being specifically marketed to or made only for young children. I wrote and directed the film “The Monster of Phantom Lake” in 2005 which was released to much critical acclaim in early 2006. After a series of screenings and festival appearances, (and through an interesting-in-its-own-right roundabout Minnesota to New York to L.A. to Minnesota network) the film fell into the hands of Mr. Braun who immediately recognized it as the kind of classic entertainment he wanted to create. I met with Tim after a distribution deal was hammered out and we both quickly realized we had very similar tastes and goals. Thus, Shadow Creek Studios in its current incarnation was born.

What are your ambitions as a filmmaker working within the framework of an independent studio?

One thing I’ve always valued is freedom. Working as part of an independent studio (and having a real stake in the studio’s ongoing success) allows me a certain level of freedom that I may not otherwise get from a larger, big-corporate driven studio. As important as the bottom line IS to any business, our studio has far more leeway when it comes to what we can or cannot produce. Our overhead is smaller and many of us wear multiple hats, thus saving us money. Personally, I like the idea that I can control much of what I create. I have very few people telling me what I can or cannot do, what I can or cannot have characters say or what I can or cannot create. Having that sense of openness and trust in my particular vision or idea makes me feel less like a cog in the machine and I am respected and trusted (as opposed to second-guessed) for what I bring to the table. As a filmmaker, how could I ask for anything more?

An introduction to you labeled you a “horror movie expert.” I have a few friends and colleagues who are also proud to be identified as such. What are anyone’s qualifications when it comes to being an expert of the genre?

As with anything, it starts with a genuine love for a particular art form. A love that runs so deep you become an insatiable consumer of all things related to it. You seek it out in all its forms. You memorize lines and scenes and particular shots from your favorites. You live it to the brink of obsession, sometimes to the detriment of everything else.

With the recent success of 1408 eclipsing a three-week haul of Hostel: Part II in just its opening weekend, you believe “R”-rated horror films are headed for a downfall. Can you please elaborate?

I don’t know if I’d say that “R”-rated films in particular are headed for a downfall so much as films labeled “torture porn.” For one, 1408 has much going for it including a great cast and the luxury of being based on a Stephen King short story. That aside, I think people may be tiring a bit of the super gory films that seem more interested in “what can we get away with this time” than telling interesting and engaging stories. You certainly have to give Eli Roth credit for having such a big part helping create the “torture porn” genre (and for creating such a big stir with the first Hostel) but I think like anything, people can only take so much. For one, entertainment trends tend to be cyclical and audience horror tastes are no different. When Scream came out and did so well, teen ensemble, self-referential horror movies followed in droves (I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc.). People tired of them and moved on to remade Asian horror films (The Ring, The Grudge, etc.) that too, lost their popularity. Then, we ended up in the super graphic, brutally violent films like “Saw” and the original “Hostel.” The biggest problem I see is the herd mentality of Hollywood. It’s all a game of “copy-cat.” “Saw” and “Hostel” surprised at the box office, leading other studios (and indie filmmakers) to create their own versions hoping to cash in. This floods the market with “wannabe’s” and pale imitations. This oversaturation then has a deleterious effect on the genre as a whole so by the time Hostel II comes out, it too starts to feel like an imitation of some kind.

Eli Roth blamed both movie critics and piracy for the disappointing turnout of Hostel Part II. Critics certainly weren’t kind to the film. At least the ones who were allowed to see it if only they interviewed him first. If he were to look you in the eye and feed the argument about piracy, how would you engage him?

First, I’d reiterate the fact that EVERY Hollywood picture and a good majority of the independents deal with the problem of piracy and yet many of them rake in tons of money despite it. Piracy IS a problem but I don’t think any more so for his film compared to others. Thus, I don’t know if it’s really a valid argument specific to just his film. Now, as a filmmaker who has received his share of negative reviews, I can certainly understand his frustration with critics. In fact, Pixar’s Ratatouille dealt with critics and their role in any art form better than I’ve ever seen anywhere. But again, I don’t think critics are out to personally target Mr. Roth and many of them are just giving their honest (albeit often jaded) opinions. Plus, I really think he’s fighting an uphill battle. Moviegoers have overall just lost interest in that type of horror movie and no matter how good the film is, nothing lasts forever. Chocolate chip cookies are great after the first couple but after a dozen or so, they quickly lose their appeal.

Isn’t piracy just another scapegoat for failure and a politicized issue that is built up in importance only to find the resources used to combat it wasted on the unlikeliest of sources. I mean, why spend the dough on security to search and watch over invited film critics at screenings?

I completely agree with that. I don’t know if there has ever been a quantifiable instance of a film losing substantial amounts of money due to piracy. In fact, I think some piracy can serve as a viral marketing tool. That’s not to say that people basically stealing other people’s art is a GOOD thing but I don’t think Hollywood’s obsession with it is more than the industry protecting its bottom line.

You claim to “know” that audiences prefer “family-friendly horror”. To what do you base that knowledge on?

What I claim to know is that there is a market out there for it that NO ONE seems interested in pursuing. There is always going to be a place for hardcore sex and gore laced horror films but it seems lately that’s ALL there is.

To my memory the only horror stories worthy of the archetype of “family-friendly” are the productions based on the works of R.L. Stein. Since works of horror can’t seem to get anything less than a “PG-13” rating, how are you defining such a term at the mainstream box office?

For one, “horror” as a genre is a bit nebulous in that it can never truly be appropriate for small children. Purposely frightening preschoolers can’t really be considered positive or healthy behavior but that can be held true for other genres as well (i.e. War films, action films, sex comedies, etc.) In this instance, I think we’re talking more about Tweens and up.

As such, a good example of what I’d consider “family friendly” horror is “Poltergeist.” The film is rated PG (although was almost rated R at the time and PG-13 didn’t yet exist) but is the absolute best example of family friendly horror ever. The film was scary but not overly gory and no one dies or is disemboweled or dismembered. No one is forced, under the influence, to eat their own cooked brain. Instead, the film presents great, classic “scary” imagery that frightens people like clowns or things that go “bump in the night” or exploits base fears like loss and death.

To be honest, I don’t think you could get away with a horror movie getting less than a PG-13 (no matter how tame) these days unless it’s animated and then, you’re up against the stigma of animation being a “children’s” genre. Although, modern animation is a good example of how family friendly fare can appeal to all ages and walks of life. Films like the Shrek series or almost any Pixar film easily appeal to children for being colorful and cartoony but use adult-ish situations and clever, veiled humor to appeal to adults. I firmly believe there’s no reason this couldn’t be achieved with horror films. In fact, it’s something I think I successfully accomplished with my film “The Monster of Phantom Lake.”

Poltergeist did have a guy ripping the flesh off his face though. Many eyes were certainly covered during that scene. Even Disney’s Something Wicked This Way Comes had more than a few disturbing elements about it. You mention animation which gave us the wonderful Monster House last year that was somewhat financially disappointing. Sold with powerhouse names like Spielberg & Zemeckis, it opened seven weeks behind Pixar’s Cars (which was #10 on the charts that week.) The Ant Bully was dead on arrival a week later and yet Barnyard, the third animated film in three weeks, ended up outgrossing it. Clearly this was as superior a “family-friendly” horror film as we were gonna get, so why do you think it failed to find a larger audience and wouldn’t this have been the perfect counterprogramming to another Saw film around Halloween time?

True, there is some disturbing imagery in Poltergeist but, on the whole, it wouldn’t be horror without it! I think the biggest problem with Monster House (which was great) was that it SHOULD have come out closer to Halloween as counterprogramming to Saw. I think it may have just gotten lost in the shuffle with so many animated films so close to each other. That and I think Barnyard was marketed really well to very young children, which may have made parents more open to going to see it.

I would offer Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others as an example of a more gothic horror suitable for most ages. But the MPAA still went and slapped a PG-13 on it despite having no memorable trace of language or overt violence about it. As a group exposed of having little parental experience, hasn’t the MPAA doomed all brands of horror in the name of the all-too-common practice of shielding children from the evils of the world?

I thought “The Others” was a GREAT film, and another great example of “family friendly” horror. I think discussing the MPAA and all of its particular problems would be a whole different discussion that could end up as even more in depth than this one! And yes, The MPAA HAS doomed all brands of horror in the name of “saving the children.” Not to mention, I’ll never understand why the MPAA seems so eager to shield everyone from basic human sexuality but allows certain acts of extreme violence get a pass. Again, a discussion for a later time!

M. Night Shyamalan is another who has tried to bring back a minimalist approach to horror. Minimalist in that it’s devoid of any skill as a screenwriter and a filmmaker whatsoever. Seriously though, even he after years of PG-13 work and the disastrous attempt at fairy tale horror (Lady in the Water) has announced that his next film (The Happening) will be a hard “R” and decidedly more adult. Isn’t he, like Roth, kidding themselves in that their name above a title will be enough to draw in the crowds?

Yes. I think directors’ names above the title should only be reserved for truly great filmmakers who’ve “earned it” like a Spielberg, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Mihm, etc. I think M. Night Shyamalan is a special case in that he may have gotten so wrapped up in his own success that he thought people saw his movies simply because he made them. And hey, you can’t fault Mr. Shyamalan for maybe wanting to do something new (although, I thought The Sixth Sense was a GREAT film).

In 2004 after a successful play on the festival circuit, Saw become a solid hit and is prepped for its fourth chapter in as many years. Like any influential film over time it has spawned its share of ripoffs and wannabes. It’s also the origin of the now chic term referring to violent horror fare as “torture porn.” Creative suffering has a long tradition in slasher films though, so isn’t this just a term of agenda more than an epidemic of necessity.

I don’t exactly see “torture porn” as a term of agenda, at least not if you mean “those who use it have an anti-torture porn agenda.” I personally like the term because I believe it accurately describes these kind of films. They gloriously celebrate extreme, gory and graphic violence just like porn (of the XXX variety) celebrates the raw, graphic, unadulterated sexual act. In the way that porn tries to outdo itself (no doubt to stand out in a ridiculously oversaturated market) by presenting often increasingly bizarre and/or religiously questionable material so too must the modern horror filmmaker try to surpass their forebears. After all, I’ve never met any artist who openly thinks, “I just want to create something that’s been done before.” And yes, creative suffering and death have always been part of the genre and actually, is part of the appeal of these particular TYPE of horror films. My point is that not every horror film NEEDS it.

If there is another rise in the “PG-13” form of horror, which fans have themselves faulted as being the downfall of the genre, what do the consenting adults who like their frights a bit rougher have to look forward to? Doesn’t such a drought breed a greater acceptance of push-the-envelope mayhem?

I think there needs to be more of a balance. There is no reason that every horror film that comes out at any given moment has to be of the hard-R variety or the more impressionistic PG-13 type. I also don’t think that either type will entirely go away. Again, this goes back to my Hollywood-herd-mentality argument. They follow the money. So what is a hardcore push-the-envelope horror fan to do if the PG-13 horror film comes back and takes over the mainstream? Go independent. There are tons of GREAT indie horror films out there that push the envelope even more than the hardest of the hardcore Hollywood sanctioned films. With the dawn of the digital filmmaking age, there are great films out there that rival (and occasionally surpass) Hollywood. I highly recommend looking into it.

Can we set aside the notion that the rating system is meant to define films as opposed to the other way around as a guide as it’s supposed to be? Don’t certain films need the edge of its convictions to fully convey the reality of terror?

Yes, certain films DO need the edge of their convictions to fully convey the reality of their particular BRAND of terror and I, for one, would never advocate censoring anyone’s artistic freedom. BUT, and I’ve said this before, I think that there is a market out there for all KINDS of horror and I think the general mainstream (not the hardcore fan) has simply lost its interest in extreme forms. Without a doubt, they’ll eventually come back to it but, right now, people are worn out and the thrill is gone.

With the surprise success of the rather lackluster, Disturbia, we are likely poised for Hollywood to start trotting out less “horror” and more “thriller”, a term that most horror fans eye as a red flag. And yet this is a genre geared towards adults that has somehow failed with elder moviegoers of late as seen with Zodiac, Breach and Mr. Brooks. Was Disturbia just a right place/right time kind of miracle?

I think Disturbia succeeded more on being marketed well to teenagers. Zodiac was less a horror movie and more a mystery, Breach was more political in nature (people are sick of politics) and Mr. Brooks was cursed with Kevin Costner (who no one has forgiven for The Postman and Waterworld). I think people just don’t like going to the movies anymore. But that’s another discussion as well.

As a defender of Mr. Brooks, I think that assessment of Kevin Costner is actually a bit unfair and archaic. The Postman was ten years ago. Let it go, people. The numbers may not lie as his films haven't seen $60 million since Waterworld (which made $88 million domestically), but he's tried to reinvent himself as a supporting player in films like The Upside of Anger and made solid films like Thirteen Days and Open Range (which he also directed) since. Surely numbers don't always dictate quality. It took Johnny Depp years to get mainstream recognition and Christian Bale is one of the best actors working today but it took Batman Begins for people to step up and take notice. What actor or actress would you like to bring into the mainstream?

I kid Kevin Costner. I think he’s a great actor and director who hit some really rotten luck. But no matter what you say, his English accent still sucks!

Personally, I’d love to bring every actor and actress I’ve personally worked with into the mainstream, in particular Mike Cook, M. Scott Taulman, Emily Fradenburgh and Alana Bloom, all of whom really deserve extra attention for their under-recognized acting prowess. As for more established indie actors, I’ve never understood why someone like Martin Donovan hasn’t gotten more recognition. I liked Adrienne Shelly, who was, unfortunately, gruesomely murdered in her home while working on her film “Waitress.” Strangely, both of those actors appeared together in Hal Hartley’s “Trust.” I always wished David Thewlis (of Mike Leigh’s “Naked”) would have made a larger splash in the U.S. Sure, he’s been in some pretty big films including the last two “Harry Potter” films but I don’t think he’s ever been given enough room to ACT as well as he can. Speaking of other English actors, I hope Christopher Eccleston can make it big Stateside. His turn as Dr. Who (and his recent guest appearances on “Heroes”) were magnificent. Steve Zahn, being a native Minnesotan, needs more challenging work, too.

Zahn actually gives an award-level performance in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn out in theaters now. Years ago, a colleague was working with an independent producer who was looking for horror scripts to make on the cheap. The idea came up to make a scary movie tailor-made for children. After settling on an idea, I wrote up a treatment that was well-received. By the time it made its way up the ladder though, the kids in the film were reportedly turned into teenagers and the setting moved from a summer camp to a college campus which completely changed not only the original hope for a kid-based scarefest but the entire concept of what the film was really about. The point being - if we can't even trust the so-called artists out there to know the difference between art and commerce what hope is there in a niche genre bridging the critical and commercial response?

There is always hope. The unfortunate side of all art, especially film, TV, books and music is that it IS so hard to make a living at it that almost everyone HAS to sell out to “make it.” The ones that don’t have to sell out are the ones that create the art that everyone else wants to rip off. Besides, why can’t art and commerce be the same or at least have the same goals?

With the exception of the original Exorcist, religiously questionable material have never proven to be gold at the box office. Stigmata, The Order and The Reaping just to name a few. The documentaries Deliver Us From Evil and Twist of Faith may be as scary as they ever come. But, apart from the apocalyptic independent productions geared specifically towards their faith-based audience, do you think horror films which tackle the core foundation most of this country have built their lives upon, one which ironically has historically used fear to keep children in line, have a future?

I think it has more to do with making GOOD religious horror films than any inherent problems with the subgenre. In fact, I’m actually surprised they don’t make more Christian-based horror films since the imagery used in the religion IS so powerful, so familiar to so many and so deeply ingrained in so many Americans. Perhaps the lack of Christian horror films has more to do with the misguided perception (in the Christian faith especially) that horror as a genre tends to appeal mostly to malcontents, Satanists and “evil” people, much like Heavy Metal (which is used in a lot of modern horror films) and Dungeons and Dragons (which has not been used very well in film).

I find it amusing that this week (July 11 & 13) we find the latest "torture porn" entry, Captivity, hitting theaters at the same time the fifth Harry Potter film fuels the hype for J.K. Rowling's final book, whose #1 question revolves around whether its lead character will die. Order of the Phoenix continues what I think is the most interesting thing about Rowling's series in that its children are growing up just as its readers are. The books and films' scariest undertakings are not killer wizards and "blasphemous" witchcraft but the horrors of adolescence including alienation and hormonal imbalance. Because the films are apparently getting "darker" and characters are dying, they have been getting PG-13 ratings. I commented in my review of the fact that three times as many people this past holiday season went to see Night at the Museum over Charlotte's Web. What's more disconcerting in shielding the children from? Death or the harsh facts of growing up - which will eventually include death?

Speaking as a parent, I’ve never tried to shield my children from some of the “darker,” harsher elements of life. Death, in particular, comes to everyone so why ignore it? Again, this speaks to the MPAA’s often nonsensical ratings system. If we’re talking the very straightforward facts of life, (including sex, death and taxes) it has never made sense to me which fact-of-life the MPAA is going to choose at any given moment to negatively rate a film.

So what's up next for you and your company?

We’re currently knee-deep in principal photography on our latest film “Cave Women on Mars,” which is turning out far better than I could have imagined. I personally think that’s mostly due to the addition of some new team members including one of the most talented costumers/designers I’ve ever met, Brittany Hughes. We’ve just recently released our newest film “It Came From Another World!” and we’re actively promoting it. We’re gearing up for the second annual Twin Cities Underground Film Festival, which was co-founded by myself and fellow Shadow Creek Studios exec Josh Craig. We’ve got other projects in the planning stages including a film noir tentatively titled “No Good Way to Die,” an online series following the continuing “outer space” adventures of one of the characters from “Cave Women on Mars” and a stand-alone “Canoe Cops” (see “The Monster of Phantom Lake” and “It Came From Another World!”) film. As for the company, we will continue to work toward our ultimate goal of becoming the preeminent Midwestern independent film studio.

In summation, a question we always like to include as part of our festival interview series. Say you will given $30 million in studio money to remake a horror film for your company in the family-friendly mode. What would you choose and why?”

This isn’t much of a horror film (I guess it was in the 1950’s when it was first released) but I’ve always wanted to remake the original Gojira as something far better than the wretched 1998 American Godzilla. I think it could be done far better, be as truly scary as the reality of a giant monster destroying a city could be and fun and safe enough for the entire family. Granted, I don’t think $30 million would do it but I have always been a fan of “giant monster terrorizing the world” films. I was going to say “Attack of the Giant Leeches” but apparently, it’s already being remade for 2008! I don’t know if I could choose a specific film other than some of the man-in-rubber-suit-monster/red-scare films of the late 1950’s that I’ve always been a huge fan of. (You only need to watch any of my films to figure that out!) I would personally LOVE to remake the Vincent Price film “The Last Man on Earth” but, of course, it’s already been remade as “The Omega Man” and the forthcoming “I Am Legend.” Others, although they’re more sci-fi than horror would be “This Island Earth” or “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers.” As for the latter, I don’t think I could match the pure artistry of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion work but it’d still be cool to make an alien invasion flick.

In closing, I think that the secret to “family friendly” horror is effectively but tastefully exploiting very straightforward, very simple fears that everyone understands: ghosts, things that go bump in the night, loss, abandonment, disease, death, etc. That way you can get under the skin of children who understand them (as they appeal to their current situation in life as children) AND adults who still have those base fears in them from their own formative experiences.