B movie believers

As his son tells it, George Mihm first saw movies like "The Giant Behemoth" and "It Came from Beneath the Sea" as a boy growing up in Ivanhoe, a town of a few hundred in southeastern Minnesota.

"[My dad] used to sneak away to the local movie house and catch the double features," Christopher Mihm said.

Those low-budget monster and alien flicks were the worst of the worst Hollywood churned out in the ’50s — or the best of the worst, depending on your appreciation for cheesy dialogue, cheap costumes and paper-thin plots. Mihm, who inherited his father’s love of B movies, definitely falls into the latter category.

"When I started talking about making a movie of my own, I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I make one of these [B] movies?’" he said. "If nothing else, I don’t really know what I’m doing, so if I make mistakes it’s part of the charm of the genre."

That charm will be on display Halloween night, Oct. 31, when two of Mihm’s films screen as a double feature at Joe’s Garage, 1610 Harmon Place. Mihm’s first movie, "The Monster of Phantom Lake," from 2006, will show back-to-back with this year’s "It Came from Another World" to benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

The experience may approximate the double features of his father’s youth, but Mihm’s witty homage to the genre almost can’t help but have better acting, production and special effects than the original B movies. It doesn’t matter that the "Monster" actors were volunteers and the titular creature was created for $35.

The movies have won over hundreds of horror and sci-fi fans who have snatched up DVDs at local premieres and supported the movies at film festivals across the country. In early October, judges of the ShockerFest International Film Festival in Modesto, Cal., awarded "It Came from Another World" best picture in the science fiction category.

Now, just two years after shooting the first scenes of his first real movie, Mihm has written and directed his third, "Cave Women on Mars," now in production.

"It’s been a crazy, crazy ride," he said, summing up the past three years.

Childhood friends Josh Craig and Mike Mason were along for that ride. All three grew up in Southwest and attended South High School in the early ’90s.

It’s safe to say none of them expected three years ago they would quit their jobs to run the fledgling Shadow Creek Studios, based in Maple Grove. But Mihm, especially, has learned to deal with the unexpected.

‘One moment it’s one way…’

"Nothing huge ever happens gradually," Mihm said. "It tends to be: One moment it’s one way, and the next moment it’s not. And everything is different."

He wasn’t just talking about career changes.

In 2000, Mihm’s father, George, died about a year after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Four years later, Mihm’s stepdaughter Elizabeth, then 13 years old, was found to have a tumor in her right leg.

As far back as high school, Mihm had talked about making movies. In 2005, feeling "smacked in the face" by his own sense of mortality, he decided it was time to turn talk into action.

"It was kind of the kick in the pants we all needed to get out there and make the kind of movies we always talked about doing," Mason confirmed.

For Mihm and his family, the movie-making process was also a welcome distraction from Elizabeth’s cancer battle. (Today, she has been cancer-free for two years.)

Elizabeth helped build the monster costume. Her brother, Michael, donned the costume for filming. Mihm’s wife Stephanie helped audition actors recruited through Craigslist when she wasn’t shuttling her daughter to chemotherapy sessions.

"The Monster of Phantom Lake" — filmed in a wooded suburban lot — was completed in about six weeks for under $3,000. Most of that cost was recouped through DVD sales when the movie premiered at the Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights in March 2006.

Craig said one key to the film’s success was its aura of authenticity.

"We’re not spoofing these films," he insisted. "We’re not going wink, wink, nudge, nudge, ‘Did you get it? Did you get it?’ to the audience. That’s not what we’re all about."

Craig said the actors played it straight during filming. After all, he added, none of the original B movie directors set out to make an awful film.

"And it is funny," Mason said. "And it’s more funny than scary sometimes. That’s the beauty of these movies."

A connection back home

Pretty soon, "The Monster of Phantom Lake" was making the rounds on the small, independent film festival circuit. But it turned out a rejection — from The B-Movie Film Festival in Syracuse, N.Y. — would have a bigger impact than any of their audience choice awards.

"We know about submitting films, and we don’t ever ask, ‘Hey, why didn’t we get in?’" Craig said.

This time, though, they did. The creators of "The Monster of Phantom Lake" figured their movie was a shoo-in since the festival was, after all, dedicated to B movies.

When they got in touch with the festival director, he offered instead to show it in a local theatre for $500.

"So we did," Craig said. "We thought, ‘It’s not New York, N.Y., or anything, but it’s New York, and that’s probably the only way we’ll be able to show it out there.’"

The movie ended up showing at about the worst possible time. Torrential rains and flooding in the Northeast kept the turnout low. Only about 12 people sat for the screening.

Still, dedicated B movie fans that they were, the dozen audience members "absolutely loved it," Craig said. The festival director arranged another showing — for free this time — and about 10 times as many people showed up.

At that point, their East Coast connection offered to show "The Monster of Phantom Lake" to a guy in Los Angeles who knew a media distributor. It wasn’t until after they were offered a distribution deal on "Monster" — as well as two other movies, scripts-unwritten — that they discovered the distributor was working practically out of their backyards.

The distributor was Tim Braun, president of Maple Grove-based Braun Media, the producer of the "Kent Hrbek Outdoors" TV show, among other media products. Braun, raised by a mother who worked in Robbinsdale’s Terrace Theatre, said he had long dreamed of starting his own movie studio.

"It was exactly what I was looking for," he said. "I guess I just have a personal love for the science fiction and horror movies from the ’50s and ’60s."

But what about the man who inspired Mihm’s passion for those same B movies? What would George Mihm think?

"I think he’d get a kick out of them," his son said. "But at the same time he was a jokester so he probably would have made fun of them."

Mihm thought a bit, and added: "He would have loved them."

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4372.