REVIEW: Lake Michigan Monster [2020]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 78 minutes
    Release Date: July 31st, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Arrow Film Distributors
    Director(s): Ryland Brickson Cole Tews
    Writer(s): Ryland Brickson Cole Tews / Ryland Brickson Cole Tews & Mike Cheslik (story)

I’m docking your pay.

Charm goes a long way for some films—particularly those of the DIY variety where it becomes crucial as a means of deflecting the work’s obvious shortcomings. By leaning into those deficiencies to make them a purposeful part of the aesthetic rather than an unavoidable casualty, you turn them to your advantage. This winking intent also provides a blank canvas with which to free your imagination because “bad” has suddenly transformed into “good.” Whereas a serious film has to consider authenticity, an absurd oddity declares itself allergic to it. Break the fourth wall. Take the path of most resistance. And just have fun. The more you enjoy creating a romp like Lake Michigan Monster, the better chance your audience has of falling prey to your enthusiasm.

This is exactly what happens during the course of Ryland Brickson Cole Tews‘ feature directorial debut since his script (from a story hatched alongside Mike Cheslik) cannot do it alone. You can accept the far-fetched fantasy of the whole’s eccentric mythology, but the humor is simply too juvenile for adults and the content too adult for children. So while comparisons to “Spongebob Squarepants” are apt, its reversal of that show’s formula (adult humor in a juvenile cartoon) forces it to exist in a purgatorial wasteland between both potential audiences on paper. It’s therefore the visual wink that bridges the gap. It places us into the film while taking the actors out. By recognizing the failure of their own jokes on-screen, they self-reflexively render the scenario surrounding them funny.

That’s where the biggest laughs resided for me: when characters talk about their darkly unsavory past to find the rest of the cast looking at them in shocked disbelief. You almost feel as though the silence is for Tews himself (a meta reaction considering he plays the lead role of Captain Seafield and thus reacts to the words too) as an abrupt double-take that could very easily have been a surprise bit of improvisation meant to catch everyone off-guard if everything else wasn’t so precisely orchestrated within its lo-fi façade. Just look at those instances when someone from the “real” world interrupts Seafield’s make-believe quest to avenge his father. They work on multiple levels to the point where I anticipated the crew suddenly appearing on-screen too.

Tews doesn’t go that far, though. Instead of fully breaking the fourth wall into our world, he finds enjoyment in breaking it within the film’s world thanks to a decision to turn his characters into anachronisms. Rather than bring present objects into an old-timey, sea shanty environment, he brings the latter into the former. Seafield’s mission is therefore presented as a sort of game that he recruits Sean Shaughnessy (Erick West), Nedge Pepsi (Beulah Peters), and Dick Flynn (Daniel Long) into playing. So while they embody the role with vocal affectations and Ed Wood-era costuming/props, they also have a penchant for breaking character to comment on the absurdity of what they’re doing. But this only goes so far once they willingly become embroiled in that absurdity too.

It could be a quick cut that steals Dick’s clothes (and replaces them with a scratchy, superimposed censor block over his waist) without him knowing or all of them suddenly seeing the monster that killed Seafield’s father with their own eyes despite thinking this whole thing was a lark worth enduring for the checks he kept doling out. Just when you think this trio is going to have enough and walk away, they somehow erase the line between reality and fantasy themselves until we’re as disoriented as the camera trying its best to crop out the cars in the background of a scene that wants to exist out of time. Eventually you must either embrace the nonsensically surreal motivations or quit because they’re not going anywhere.

Tews will push things further and further to the edge of reason with a one-eyed older brother (Wayne Tews‘ Ashcroft) going on about intuition, dialogue that attempts to describe characters as being twenty years younger than our eyes would believe, and a climactic undersea battle between Seafield, the monster, and a group of ghosts that looks fantastic. It’s this last part that ultimately pushes the Lake Michigan Monster from overlong gag (it will try your patience at times) to surprisingly effective cinema. The stupidity of the script never compromises the sheer imaginative brilliance of its artistic success. Cheslik’s special effects work lends credibility to the rest that exposes an intent skewing much closer to homage than pure farce. This isn’t The Room. There’s talent alongside the filmmakers’ desire.

Does that mean it’ll win over everyone who sees it? No. It does, however, have enough going for it to ensure those who do can appreciate why ardent fans should make it a cult success. Tews goes too far in some instances and perhaps not far enough in others, but we see his passion shining through both nonetheless. With a willing cast that’s unafraid to punch holes through the artifice and also embrace it depending on what’s asked of them, we’re able to perpetually be in on the joke in order to never wonder whether or not a joke exists. The film itself is the joke: a great-looking labor of love that chooses silliness and puerility over austere seriousness. If nothing else, you have to admire its conviction.

courtesy of the Arrow Film

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