Lights! Camera! Action! A taste of Hollywood comes to Arden Hills
Kate Garlock, Bulletin Staff
The movie poster for Mihm's film is reminiscent of the 1950's drive-in genre.
Christopher Mihm's life has taken place in a series of "crazy moments."
Sitting at a table on the patio at Caribou Coffee in Arden Hills, the 32- year-old self-employed computer programmer doesn't look like someone you'd expect to have a cult following, but the movies this Arden Hills resident makes are starting to develop just such a following.
On May 20 Mihm will debut his fourth 1950's style B-horror movie, "It Came From Beneath the Earth." The curtain will go up at 7 p.m. at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights.
All for George
Mihm's exposure to the 1950's drive-in style B-horror movie began at a young age. Mihm's father, George, had a deep love for the movies that stemmed back to his own childhood when he would sneak into to town to watch the horror movies - against his mother's wishes.
Mihm, who was born in 1976, grew up with the advent of the VCR. He said his father was a technology hound and wanted to have the latest gadgets. Mihm recalls how, even before stores like Blockbuster came on the scene, their family had a membership at a local store. His dad would rent the old "classics" and they would watch them together.
"He loved them, I thought it was ridiculous," Mihm said, as he recalled how as a child he was unimpressed by the cheesy plots and low-tech special effects.
After Mihm's father died of cancer in 2000 at 51, Mihm would lovingly recall sitting with his father watching the movies George carried such a passion for.
"He's done his dad proud, if you ask me," said Sid Korpi, both a fan and former film studies teacher.
The bond between father and son inspired Mihm to name his production company "All for George."
Let's just do it
In 2004, Mihm's 13-year-old step-daughter, Elizabeth Kaiser, was diagnosed with cancer.
"It was one of those crazy moments," Mihm explained. "Here I am, 28, out of shape ... if she could get cancer, so could I. I could die at any moment ... Let's just do it."
Earlier that year, Mihm had seen a movie made with a digital camera and realized how available the new movie making equipment was. Unfortunately, with his step-daughter's illness, the process would have to be put on hold a little longer.
Later, as his wife began spending nights at the hospital with Elizabeth, Mihm would sit down to write pieces of what would become "The Monster of Phantom Lake."
Mihm called it a "cathartic tribute" to his father. He added he thought, "Why not make a 1950's style monster movie? I could do it, I know the genre backward and forwards."
He said in this style a movie could be cheesy and look bad and it would simply make it all the more charming.
Mihm contacted one of his high school friends, Josh Craig, who had been interested in acting and said "Let's do it."
"He was like, 'Oh sure, let's do it, like we always have.' And I said 'No, here's 10 pages,'" Mihm recalled.
From there the film buffs started eyeing a production schedule. In three weeks, Mihm had finished the script. He then purchased a digital camera.
"Next thing you know we had auditions," Mihm noted.
And then there was another one of those "crazy moments" where everything came together. The crew needed to shoot the movie in a wooded area, but didn't know anything about obtaining permits for filming, so they set out to find someone who would let them film on their forested property. As it turned out, Craig's neighbor's parents had two acres of wooded land in Woodbury and let the group film there.
"We shot the movie and I learned as I went," Mihm said.
Mihm did everything - from writing the screenplay and directing to doing the camera work, sound and editing - he even got his family in on the process to help take everyone's mind off Elizabeth's illness. His step-daughter helped him make costumes while she was home recovering and his 15-year-old step-son played the monster. His two-year-old son even helped shred garbage bags to make the monster costume.
Once completed, he booked the Heights Theater for the premiere and it received positive feedback from local reviewers as well as a good response from local film aficionados.
"It just went really, really well," Mihm said. "It just kind of went nuts ... it just sort of worked out and I decided I didn't want to stop."
From there Mihm began planning his next film. That film was, he admits, not as good as the first, but he developed a following nevertheless. Though Mihm says he's not making money on his films, he has managed to break even.
"If I could make a living I would. I would eventually like to build a cult," Mihm said jokingly, adding, "You know, live on a ranch or something."
In the background, Mihm films one of the scenes for the movie.
That 1950's style
He's been called the Twin Cities' own Ed Wood, a notorious writer and director of cheesy - but lovable - 50's films, who enjoyed a revival after Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," a biographical film about Wood that came out it in the 1990's. Mihm said Wood was one of his inspirations.
"I thought, 'Man I could do that,'" he said. "Plan Nine is so terrible there's no way I could do something worse."
Mihm said the trick was to "play it straight."
He didn't want his actors to play it like a spoof or appear "tongue in cheek," a decision that was quickly proven right.
"It adds authenticity," he said. "They weren't trying to make bad movies, they were doing what they could with what they had."
And that's exactly what Mihm is doing. Be it creating a cave in his basement or using his step-son as the monster, Mihm is doing what he can with what he has.
"I fell in love with genre way more than I ever realized," Mihm noted.
Mihm spoke lovingly of the buried plot lines and recurrent themes found in the old movies he loves.
"There's an under current of the red scare and world annihilation," Mihm noted. "A lot of people look at the fifties and idealize it as a perfect conservative era ... but there was this ugly undercurrent of racism, and brazen sexism."
He added he tries to incorporate some of these themes and subversive plot lines in his films.
Another 50's element Mihm brings to his movies is the "family friendly" monster. Mihm uses the term "family friendly" cautiously.
"Now people say family friendly and they mean mostly for kids," he explained.
Mihm says his films can be viewed by children - there's no swearing, nudity or strong violence - but they're not meant specifically for youngsters.
Mihm remembers watching one of his favorite drive-in movies, "THEM!", as child.
"It's one of the better old 1950's movies about giant ants," he said.
Mihm recalls it was safe for him to watch as a kid and how he thought the idea of giant ants was "the best thing ever."
Another of his favorites, "This Island Earth," is Mihm's inspiration for just about everything, he said.
"It's so quintessentially fifties sci-fi," Mihm said. He laughed over the "preposterous ending" and special effects that "are so era specific."
According to his fan, Korpi, Mihm imitates those era specific special effects and subversive plots perfectly.
"Each [of Mihm's films] is in a black and white, 1950s-drive-in-style. An homage to a time of cheesy creature features and kitschy sci-fi classics," she said. "Wonderfully retro and nostalgia-inducing, Mihm's movies exploit every B-movie convention known to hilarious effect."
It Came From Beneath the Earth
It almost looked like Mihm would have to take a year off when his lead actor's wife got pregnant. Craig had starred in all the previous films, but needed time off.
"I didn't want to lose a year," Mihm said. "Realistically I can put out one feature a year."
So he decided to take things in a different direction. His wife, Stephanie, had wanted to be in another film, so he decided to give her a bigger role, and soon the whole family was in on it. His step-son, Michael Kaiser, 20, would once again play the monster, as well as a sheriff's deputy, and the now 17-year-old Elizabeth, along with his son Elliot, would play abducted children. His wife took on the prominent role as the main scientist's assistant.
For the film's set Mihm wanted to do something different as well. For the other three movies, they had shot exclusively at the property in Woodbury.
This time, Mihm chose to make the creature in this movie a cave monster, and turned his basement into the perfect setting. It was also perfect for the winter filming the schedule required.
Mihm used this last movie to help tie the others together. Without his usual leading man, he brought back the main character's wife. This love of subtle cohesion was fostered through exposure to other forms of science fiction like Star Wars and Star Trek, he said.
"I'm a big nerd and I love science fiction," Mihm explained. "One of the things I like about Star Trek is the cultish family. People come together over something they love."