'Terror From Beneath the Earth': '50s scary, but not too ...
By Ed Huyck
Christopher Mihm knows the moment that his movie-making career hit pay dirt.
"When I first saw one of my movies at a drive-in, it was just transcendent," the Arden Hills auteur says.
Like the greats of B-cinema before him, Mihm is happy to just make his films a reality. With a knowing wink to the likes of "Them!" "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and any number of black and white films that envisioned the far-flung future of the 1980s, Mihm has craved a unique niche as he lovingly crafts his works for a new audience.
This week, Mihm's fourth no-budget feature, "Terror From Beneath the Earth," premieres at the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights.
For Mihm, filmmaking started as a way to pay tribute to his late father, but it has become an exciting venture on its own -- one that allows him, his friends and family to make their own cinema, and even build a fan base.
Mihm, a 30-something computer programmer by day, traces his interest in the cheesy films of the 1950s and 1960s to his father, George. After his father passed away from stomach cancer in 2000 Mihm dove back into those films. He combined this with a nascent interest in filmmaking -- and a newly bought digital video camera -- and began to craft his films.
Inspired by 1950s horror, sci-fi
In 2005, he released "The Monster of Phantom Lake." That was followed in quick succession by "It Came From Another World" and "Cave Women on Mars." Like his previous three works, "Terror From Beneath the Earth" takes horror and science fiction B-movies from the 1950s as an inspiration point. While shot on digital video, the film is presented in black and white. And with volunteer help, Mihm's out-of-pocket expenses run to between $2,000 and $5,000 -- or less than the morning catering on a typical big-budget release.
"This is the third script I ended up writing last year," Mihm says. "I was going to do one movie, but as I wrote it, it would be more expensive than I could do. I had an idea for another one, but my Josh Craig -- who's been involved in all of the films in some way -- couldn't do because his wife got pregnant. I wanted to keep doing a film a year, so I thought about what I could do."
Mihm had already thought about using part of his basement (that he shares, it should be noted, with wife Stephanie and their children) as a cave, so his thoughts turned to a full feature using just that set. "I thought, what lives in caves? Bats. I could have giant mutant bats. What would make them mutants? Radiation."
With his 1950s tropes in place, Mihm set out to write the script and then start with filming. Since he was using largely volunteer labor (those family and friends mentioned earlier) they movie was shot on the weekends over the span of several months. The slow pace not only allowed everyone time to work around other schedules -- from school to the holidays -- it also allowed Mihm to load each session's work onto his computer and edit the work.
"I have a good sense of the film as it's coming together, so if something is not working I can reshoot it," he says.
New movies the way they used to be
While Mihm certainly winks at the conventions and clichés of the B-movie fare, his films aren't intended as straight-on spoofs. Instead, he is making movies for an audience that wants new movies the way they used to be. The fans include older devotees of B-movies and drive-ins (his latest will also be shown over Memorial Day at the Highway 18 Outdoor Theater in Jefferson, Wis.) and youngsters who are drawn to his movies because, certainly in today's "Saw"-driven market, they may be kind of creepy, but aren't so scary.
"Little kids love them because they can get a little scare, but aren't traumatized for life," Mihm says.
He's already hard at work on his next project, which will play off the science fiction "Cave Women of Mars." "It's kind of a 'Star Wars'/'Star Trek' thing, but if those had been made in the 1950s," Mihm says.
The film will be shot through the rest of the year. In part, again, because of schedules, but also to film a series of exteriors. "I have the same stretch of woods in every film," Mihm says. "So for this, we're going to use it in different seasons to represent the different planets they visit."
"Terror From Beneath the Earth" will premiere at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 20, at the Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave., Columbia Heights. Tickets are $5. Live organ music will begin at 6:30 p.m., and there will be cake and festivities after the showing. Future screenings are planned through the summer, and the film will also be available on DVD.