"The Monster of Phantom Lake" comes home

8 p.m. showings set for Jack-o-Lantern Jaunt
By Carol Spaeth-Bauer — Staff writer

Christopher Mihm from Minnesota's Twin Cities area grew up watching trashy, B-grade science fiction and horror movies beside his father. For years he and friend Josh Craig talked about making their own movie. Yet it was his stepdaughter's diagnosis of cancer that kicked him into action. The result – "The Monster of Phantom Lake."

Filmed in Minnesota, but set around the waters of Phantom Lake, the movie was released March 9, a monochromatic tribute to those sometimes low-grade 50s flicks Mihm's father loved.

"My father died of cancer and I was starting to feel cursed," Mihm said of his stepdaughter Elizabeth's diagnosis around Thanksgiving 2004. "If this healthy 13-year-old could get cancer, so could I. It was kind of a kick in the butt. I need to do all the things I want to do now while I can."

One of those things involved making a movie with actor friend Craig. And not just any movie, but the kind of movie reminiscent of old flicks with poorly written dialogue, barely passable camera work and marginal special effects. The kind Mihm recalled watching with his father, who passed away in 2000 at the age of 51.

"My father would tell these great stories of spending cold, small-town Minnesota winters in the relative warmth of his local movie house, taking in double features of trashy, B-grade science fiction and horror flicks," Mihm said on the movie's website.

"When I was a kid, my dad would rent these movies repeatedly. We would frequently watch them together although, at the time, I could never quite figure out just what it was my dad saw in these (often) low-grade, barely frightening (by my standards) films."

When he revisited the films after his father's death, Mihm found they just weren't the same without his dad beside him, but the thought of making his own movie soon became his obsession.

Parking himself in front of his laptop in February 2005, he wrote 20 pages, handed those off to Craig to read, then pressed on until the script was finished.

"I didn't want to give up," said Mihm.

For Mihm and his family the movie became a type of therapy.

Elizabeth's diagnosis hit everyone hard, Mihm said. Working on the movie gave everyone something to do.

Mihm's stepson Michael took the role of The Monster. Liz helped design the monster costume. Mihm's 4-year-old son Elliot helped build the monster costume. His wife, Stephanie, helped with various tasks including casting.

In the midst of movie making, the family took time to participate in Mukwonago's Relay for Life in June where Liz acted as an honorary chairperson, helping carry the Relay banner during the survivor lap.

Then it was back to the movie. Mihm's cast and crew of more than 20 spent weekends in July and August rehearsing and filming, more than 40 hours worth of work altogether.

A computer programmer by profession with no film school training, Mihm said, "I made it up as I went along… I'm one of those people that can sit and figure things out."

So he watched a lot of B-grade movies, researched film techniques, and purchased a digital video camera that would allow him to save thousands of dollars in filming costs.

Mihm said he had been interested in screen and playwriting for years. Craig, Mihm's friend since high school and an actor just as long, helped brainstorm ideas for the script.

They thought about using a giant spider or a giant grasshopper in the movie but didn't know how to do the special effects for such a creature. Thus The Monster was born, a shell-shocked ex-soldier transformed by Atomic Waste who wreaks havoc at a high school graduation party along the shores of Phantom Lake.

Living in a state filled with lakes, Mihm wanted to have a lake in the movie but none of the Minnesota lakes' names fit the bill. Mihm's wife, formerly Stephanie Eade, grew up in Mukwonago and was familiar with Phantom Lake. She suggested her hometown lake.

"I liked the name Phantom Lake," said Mihm. "It's got the perfect B-movie ring to it."

Once filming was complete, Mihm continued his trick of "picking things up as he went along" in using video editing software, which was similar to the music editing software he has used in his 15 years as a musician.

After the movie was complete Mihm sent out press releases to local publications, but didn't hear anything at first. Then a review came out before the premier.

"He (the critic) absolutely got it. All the jokes, all the subtle things," Mihm said.

The movie opened at The Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, Min. to a nearly sold out crowd.

More reviews applauded "The Monster of Phantom Lake" labeling it the "little movie that could" with "a sharp script and some wonderfully hammy thespianship" despite being campy and blurry at times. The film has been accepted and screened at eight film festivals across the country since its release, along with numerous screenings.

Along with screenings across the United States in October and at the Al Asad Airbase for troops serving in Iraq, "The Monster of Phantom Lake" will be shown in Mukwonago during the Jack-o-Lantern Jaunt in Field Park Oct. 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. on the baseball field.

Already at work on a nonlinear sequel starring Professor Jackson, The Monster of Phantom Lake's man of science who knows nothing of science, should be released March 2007.

Mihm said he's realized that he likes entertaining people. He already has a third movie in mind, "Cave Women on Mars." It all fits into Mihm's goal of making goofy movies and having a little fun doing it.

"I feel like all I want to make is B-movies," said Mihm.