The Monster of Phantom Lake (2006) by Jeffrey Long
Originally posted at: http://bmovieshelf.blogspot.ca/2013/07/the-monster-of-phantom-lake-2006.html
I've seen many of my B-Movie reviewing peers talk about a micro-budget filmmaker in recent years named Christopher R. Mihm and his series of micro-budget B-movie films (one a year) dubbed the Mihmiverse movies, and I've seen all of them talk pretty damn highly of the guy and his work, so after awhile it became obvious that I was missing out by not having seen any, so I ordered all of them online and chose "The Monster of Phantom Lake" to review first, mainly because it's also Christopher R. Mihm's very first entry in his 'Mihmiverse' series of films.
Now, a movie like "The Monster of Phantom Lake" (or really, any movie in the Mihmiverse film line) isn't made to be aimed at the average Joe Schmoe movie watcher off the street. Movies like these are made to appeal to a very niche audience – it has a micro budget (less then $3000, I heard), filmed in black and white, and has no special effects to speak of, with just a super low-budget (intentionally!) crappy monster suit. In other words, "The Monster of Phantom Lake" is the perfect homage throw back for those who grew up with, or at the very least have love for, classic 1950s-era Drive-In B-Movie monster flicks. Hell, the way the characters dress, the way they talk and act, and even the background musical score – it all goes a long way to making this feel like an authentic campy 1950s B-Movie. The only 'detractor' to this illusion is the filming style itself, which is very modern and slick and looking almost like it was shot in HD – however, while that may take you out of the otherwise-authentic 1950s feel, I still personally loved it because, well, I love being able to get a good look at everything on the screen that I'm watching! I don't need fake 'added-in-post' film grain, screen scratches, and blips to be sold on this kind of gimmick. That was fine for the Grindhouse flicks, but it got annoying really quickly when every other low budget filmmaker tried to get in on that and just copied their style, so it's refreshing that this opted to not follow that trend.
Another trend I'm glad this one decided to buck instead of follow, is the extremely annoying one that micro-budget filmmakers feel the need to almost always follow – since their movie is made on a miniscule budget they try to make up for that by having buckets upon buckets of very cheap and brightly-colored blood and gore. Now, I love gore as much as the next horror hound, but a lot of these micro-budget projects go so far with it that it just makes the movie uncomfortable to watch. That was my one hesitation about checking this out, because that seemed to be the only experience I ever have with watching these kinds of micro-budget projects, but I'm happy to report that Christopher R. Mihm does not go that cheap route and, again, much like you would expect from an authentic 50s B-movie, the movie is quite tame and goreless.
As for the story, which you have probably gathered for yourself by now, it's quite a very basic, simple, and straight forward one. Atomic waste (and we know its as such because it says right on the side of the barrels!) gets illegally dumped in a small town's resident lake, which leads to the creation of a mutant algae monster that stalks the nearby forested area, which of course is also currently occupied by some camping teens as well as a working scientist and one of his university undergrad students.
This scientist is the Rock And Roll-loving Professor Jackson. His awkward chemistry and hilariously oblivious innuendos with his lovestruck female student that's accompanied him on this outing made for quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, and together they were the perfect character pairing. There was also a running gag of a couple small town cops using a canoe to get around as opposed to the usual squad car method, and while they may not have been main characters (they actually were only in two scenes, I believe), they still managed to steal the show every time they were on the screen. They also had great chemistry together, with one being the crude idiot and the other being the older, wiser, more polite persona...but not so polite that he would shy away from telling the other one when he was being an idiot. As for the group of camping teens, they consisted of the nice, normal, girl next door character, her friend the party-pooper loner nerd that was pretty much forced to go on this camping trip, a bitchier, slightly mean, girl, and two horndog guys who are the boyfriends of two of those women. Nothing to really write home about with these teens, but each of them had their own specific personality trait that they embodied pretty well, and they were all likable to some degree and fun to watch (one of them even had me a bit surprised and sad to see them go), but make no mistake – they were essentially all just here to create a body count for the movie...as camping party-loving teens normally are in movies like this.
As mentioned above, there's no blood or guts to be found in this movie, which while that made me quite relieved the one downside to that is that all the death scenes happen off-screen, which kind of make for some dull encounters with the monster. Hopefully in the future movies that I have yet to watch he somehow finds a balance between not showing gore but also still showing some on-screen death scenes as well.
My big issue though is that the runtime does go for a bit too long. Movies of this ilk back in the day used to run about an hour, slightly more in some cases, but this one is just shy of one hour and forty minutes, which is about half an hour too long for such a project. It causes large sections of the movie to drag quite a bit, and it probably could have benefited from a shorter runtime and tighter pace to be fully 100% effective. Hell, the paper mache/man-in-costume monster itself doesn't even show up to start stalking and terrorizing our characters until around the hour mark, with hardly even a mention of it being in the movie at all before that. Also, I know the bad over-acting was done deliberately and that's part of the joke of the movie, and while it didn't bother me the majority of the time, there were scenes and moments that seemed to hammer the joke home just a bit too much and it came across as unnecessary and annoying at points, like a joke that's initially funny as its being told...until the person telling it just keeps going on and on and on with it. It's also possible that it's just that some actors were a lot better at pulling that kind of tongue-in-cheek acting off while others were not, making their moments that much harder to sit through. Again, this could also have been an issue fixed by a tighter pace as it would have made said scenes shorter and thus not quite so grating.
I normally don't talk about DVD special features in my reviews, but I feel this needs to be a rare exception simply because for such a low-budget company (I believe they rely on donations and kickstarter campaigns to fund their movies), they offer quite a decent amount of bonus content for their fans – way more then the average big budget Hollywood theatrical movie does these days, that's for damn sure. We have an introduction to the movie by famous Horror Host Dr. Ivan Cryptosis which continues with the 1950s gimmick of the movie itself, one deleted scene that has Professor Jackson's student bonding with the nerdy loner teen over an embarrassing story that happened to her as a kid, two genuinely hilarious and fun 15-minute long blooper reels of the cast and crew screwing up and just goofing around on set that had me in stiches, and an in-depth informative audio commentary by Christopher R. Mihm and Josh Craig, the actor who portrayed Professor Jackson. Judging by what I've gleamed from looking at the back of each movie, this is the one movie in the catalog with the least amount of features, so be prepared for even more with some of those other titles.
At the end of the day, I do believe the movie could have benefited from a shorter runtime and tighter narrative, for if you're not accustomed to this style of movie then you may find yourself getting bored before anything significant really happens in it, in addition to getting worn out on some of the more annoying bits of over-acting. Despite those things though, "The Monster of Phantom Lake" was a pretty damn good throwback to the 1950s-era of low budget cheesy Drive-In flicks, and a great start to what seems to have become a long-lasting career of making other similar-themed movies for director/writer/producer/editor/everything else-er Christopher R. Mihm. Add to that the excellent array of features on the DVD, and you really can't go wrong with this if you're a fan of the era and genre that he's going for.
Seeing as how 99% of the advertising for this guy and his movies come from simple word of mouth from the fans, then be sure to get the word out there on these movies and hopefully we can snag in a few other fans that may not even realize these exist. You can order these on DVD (and even BluRay for the latest couple!) over at his official site which is filled with all sorts of other goodies as well (including a monthly newsletter in addition to a very laid back, yet informative, podcast). Hell, there's even an excellent deal on right now – Buy Three Movies, Get One Free, which seeing as how there's currently eight of these titles, if you do that twice then that is the perfect way to catch up with all of them and in the end save some dough – that's how I did it!
7/10 rooms in the Psych Ward