Horror on the cheap: Thrills! Fear! Irony!

What happens when you pursue that crazy dream to make a feature film? For the creators of the low-budget "Monster of Phantom Lake," a heck of a lot.

David Gustafson
Last update: December 12, 2006 — 10:42 AM

Chris Mihm of Arden Hills and longtime friend Josh Craig realized a dream they'd shared since high school when they spent $2,000 on a digital video camera and some editing software and shot a movie.

They figured that "The Monster of Phantom Lake," their cheesy tribute to 1950s B-movie horror flicks, would be an entertaining memento, something they could watch in the basement in five years and laugh about.

"But we played it at some festivals and we got a little bit of interest, then we got a little bit more interest and the ball kept on rolling," Craig said during an interview in Elk River, where the duo was recently invited to host a film festival and give a talk on how to shoot a film on a shoestring.

The film festival and the talk are just part of a series of fortunate events that have befallen Mihm and Craig since they gathered a crew of unpaid actors and set out for the woods with little idea of what they were doing about two years ago.

The movie ran at the Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights for a night and received a warm-enough welcome to warrant a rescreening. The alt-weekly City Pages described it as "a jolly tour of tongue-in-cheek '50s sexism, hilarious innuendo, and plenty of arm's length slow-dancing."

They also sold 400 copies of the movie, which was just picked up for distribution by a small Maple Grove media company. They're under contract with the company to make three more movies.

Like the film, all the ensuing attention -- the Elk River Arts Alliance asked them to teach a class next year -- has been pretty ironic, and that irony isn't lost on the filmmakers.

"We didn't know what we were doing and just kind of did it," Mihm told the crowd of about 20 who gathered to hear the pair speak in Elk River.

In fact, besides a geeky love for bad movies, it would be hard to find two more ordinary guys. Director Chris Mihm, 30, has a wife and child and runs a computer business out of his home in Arden Hills. Actor Josh Craig, 32, is also married with a child and works in insurance. The two have wanted to make a film since they took a playwriting class together at Minneapolis South High School.

So how do you make a film for less than it takes to buy a used car? According to Mihm and Craig, read "Filmmaking for Dummies," scour the Internet for tips, post a free ad on Craigslist for volunteer actors, and buy Sears work lights to film night scenes ($40).

Of course, if you're going to make a low-budget movie and shoot it in Woodbury, it's a heck of a lot easier to lampoon Ed Wood than match Kevin Smith, who became an instant cult hero after shooting the comedy "Clerks" on a shoestring budget in a gas station.

"All of the mistakes we make are part of the genre, so it gave us a certain amount of freedom in doing that," Mihm said. "We made mistakes, but it's part of the charm."

Though they made an homage to films that are notorious for being terrible, they did not set out to make a bad film.

"Yeah, they're cheesy, yeah they're bad, the jokes are bad, but we made very, very clear even in the audition process that this is a life-and-death situation for your character," Craig said. "If this trash-bag monster catches you, it will kill you."

Mihm said the duo's only worry now is that they'll actually get too skilled at filmmaking, leave the world of B-grade monster movies where amateurism is a virtue, and try to make films that are, well, you know, good.

"What if we actually get too good at this and then the movies are actually kind of good, but they're poorly made good movies as opposed to well-made bad movies? What do you do then?"

David Gustafson • 612-673-7739