Eau Claire actor adds horror flick to growing credits
Ann Barsness
Leader-Telegram Staff

“The Monster of Phantom Lake,” a stylized black-and-white ode to B-movie horror dripping with 1950s references and film techniques, will give Chippewa Valley audiences a glimpse of the gore-free genre while showcasing an independent filmmaker and a local actor.

Mike Cook of Eau Claire, who plays canoe cop Gustav, is among the actors planning to attend two Aug. 6 screenings at Chippewa Falls’ Micon Cinemas Stadium 8.

The monster of the title — a traumatized World War II veteran transformed by Atomic Waste — appears to be a cross between the Creature From the Black Lagoon (from the ’50s movie of the same title) and the tattered Sea Monster (from the ’70s cartoon “Sigmund and the Sea Monster”).

The action unfolds slowly as a group of campers celebrating their high school graduation and a college professor on a research mission with his lovely grad student pitch tents on the shore of the lake where factory workers have been secretly dumping barrels clearly labeled “Atomic Waste.”

Professor Jackson (Josh Craig) reveals — with many a dramatic pause and with much contemplative pipe-smoking — that something is amiss in the waters. Meanwhile, the campers discover a slimy handprint on a tree trunk.

The nightmarishly slow-moving, unblinking monster (Michael Kaiser) attacks the campers one by one. But something stops him from harming the jumpy Elizabeth (Deanne McDonald), who resembles the wife he murdered (long ago and off screen, of course).

Director Christopher Mihm shot the 90-minute, unrated movie last summer in the eastern Twin Cities suburbs for about $2,000. Among the top expenses: Purchasing 1950s era scientific equipment on e-Bay and feeding the 12-member cast.

Mihm has since spent another $8,000 of his own money promoting the film — an expenditure he is slowly gaining back through ticket and DVD sales.

“I just think it’s really great to know that people are seeing it and are entertained by it and are getting a good laugh,” Mihm, 30, said during a break from his home-based Web design business, Asterisk Software Inc.

He would, however, like more people to see “The Monster of Phantom Lake,” which premiered in March at The Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, Minn.

“After seeing it more than 100 times, I see all the flaws now,” Mihm said.

In future productions — “It Came From Another World!” a non-sequential film featuring most of the same actors, including Cook — Mihm said he would focus more on details.

“But at the same time, there was a reason behind why I made a B movie for my first feature film. I could make mistakes and it’s OK,” Mihm said.

“The Monster of Phantom Lake” was chosen to screen in two film festivals — The Faux Film Festival in Portland, Ore., and the Flint Film Festival in Flint, Mich. — and rejected from 30.

Part of the problem, Mihm said, was that his film didn’t fit into one category — humor, horror or sci-fi. That helps to explain the philosophy behind the Sept. 1-3 Twin Cities Underground Film Festival, which he founded with Craig.

“I have watched 300 movies. Of those, I’ve seen some that were really funny or really entertaining, but they just aren’t seeming to get into film festivals,” Mihm said of the entries, which he and Craig will whittle down to 30 or 40. Mihm said he doesn’t share other festivals’ affinity for artsy presentation.

“We wanted to go more for raw entertainment value,” Mihm said.

Cook, who drove to the Twin Cities for two days of filming, had his own reasons for responding to the casting call.

A familiar face at Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre, Cook, 52, is attempting to build a portfolio and parlay that experience into larger, better-paying screen roles. He began to make a serious attempt two years ago after he — along with hundreds of other AOL workers — was let go from his job.

“I was going to be 50. The career was ending. I figured now was the time to do it,” Cook said.

Cook appeared as an extra in last year’s “North Country,” which starred Charlize Theron in a story of harassment set on Minnesota’s Iron Range, and netted “a very small role” in “Stranger Than Fiction,” the Marc Forster film starring Will Ferrell due out in November.

He has appeared in 14 independent films, which are in various stages of production.

“Everyone seems to be friendly with everyone else (making an independent film). It doesn’t matter if you’re top billing … or the guy who owns the cables and the lights,” Cook said.

The connection to a local actor is one reason Micon’s general manager, Mike Olson, agreed to screen “The Monster of Phantom Lake.”

“No one should be deprived of a movie that normally wouldn’t come (to the Chippewa Valley) on a first-run basis,” Olson said.