Emerging from the murky depths of the state of Wisconsin, Lake Michigan Monster is a dizzying whirlpool of goofiness that manages to bizarrely combine the hit-or-miss broadness of a sketch comedy show with a rapid array of mesmerizing imagery that pays homage to black-and-white creature features, the imagination of Georges Méliès, and German expressionism. The resulting freakish spawn might not always swim gracefully, but neither did the rubber suit in The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and both turn out to be quite a bit of fun.
At first seemingly taking a page directly from Wes Anderson, Lake Michigan Monster starts with a sea-captainy fellow (complete with peaked cap, beard, and pipe) explaining how his father has been recently murdered by the titular aquatic monstrosity. Outraged, he declares that he will be assembling a crack squad of navy divers, weapons experts, and sonar technicians to kill the beast and exact his revenge. After some very Anderson-ville character intros that play up the coolness of twirling sai knives and retro technology, the mission — and the madness — is set to begin.
It’s a shallow puddle of a plot, but the goal here is less storytelling than setting up a series of cornball misadventures that writer-director-star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews can use to showcase his comedic skills and a smorgasbord of fantastic visuals. Those wanting more of a sincere love letter to the kind of cheesy drive-in movies that serve as inspiration might be a tad disappointed at the overt zaniness, but it’s hard not to smile at the film’s overall good nature as the team undergoes the execution of various grade-school ‘plans’ that involve a whiteboard, a kayak, a sword, and a machine gun, all the while celebrating their plethora of failures with plenty of booze back at the local lighthouse. Along the way there are feverish dream sequences, a pirate painter, a haunted ferry, a magical underwater journey, sneaky tentacle attacks, and a large, spotted egg that may or may not be an abomination of nature.
None of this story stuff really ‘matters,’ and Lake Michigan Monster is perfectly happy to bounce on to the next absurd idea like a hyperactive toddler with a low attention span, throwing as many gags and shots at the screen as it can. The reckless pace can almost feel exhausting at first, as the fast talking and fast editing means there is little time allowed to process all the dramatic lighting, wonderfully composed Dutch angles, and old-fashioned composites. Of course, this also means that comedic bits are also quickly discarded whether they work or not, which helps alleviate the sometimes awkward unevenness of the try-anything writing, as well as the sometimes stilted deliveries of the supporting performances.
Once one is accustomed to the flow, however, it’s increasingly easy to ignore the low-budget flaws of Lake Michigan Monster and to instead focus on the enormous amount of fun and creativity on display. Cheap has rarely looked so good; each successive edit holds the promise for something dazzling to appear on screen next, and more often than not the film delivers just that. The sheer amount of sensational images that the makers have managed to cram in is staggering, and the care put into crafting these pictures to simulate that grainy, scratched cinema of yore is the sort that will likely inspire multiple viewings, if only to bask in the old-fashioned glory. Would this aesthetic have made more of an impact within a more serious premise? Probably. But the heightened drama caused by off-kilter closeups and contrast lighting is definitely pushed into the area of the absurd when sonar blips streak across oversize glasses, or the lookalike crew of a navy ship stands at salute as if in a WWII propaganda reel.
The likability of the cast — inexperienced as they sometimes seem — also feeds into the amusement, and despite plenty of jokes that sink to the sandy bottom (a game of checkers), there are a surprising number of bits that land on solid ground (recruiting a paper-masked ghost army). They don’t play off each other particularly well, but instead come across as a group of friends who had too much to drink one night and decided to make a movie. It’s an odd chemistry that somehow works, aided by some of the more ridiculous asides. One particular discussion about the closing times of liquor stores in Milwaukee serves not only as a charmingly hilarious critique of certain Midwestern ordinances (as a Minnesotan, I’m with you, guys), but also a nice bit of slight of hand that strengthens the moment that follows; good stuff.
It’s all playful inanity that will likely be washed from memory as soon as the tide rolls in, but Lake Michigan Monster is nevertheless sunken treasure, a rollicking fish story jam-packed with old-fashioned cinematic goodies. Movie lovers should seek this goofy gem out wherever they can.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.