It Came From the Garage! Technology, Film, and the Guy Next Door
“Who is this guy?”
There in the midst of Amazon’s suggested list of horror and science fiction films was a series of what appeared to be lost Fifties films. Except that they were new, and the work of someone named Christopher R. Mihm.
“Who is this guy?” This time it was lurid covers promising octopus men and insect women, all from ultracheap distributor Alpha Films—and all made by a very young man named Joshua Kennedy.
Who are these guys?
They are just two of a strange new type of filmmaker, creators who don’t neatly fit into the simple categories of “amateur” and “professional,” daring young directors and producers, who somehow manage to turn out movie after movie with little money and few resources—the garage bands of the film world.
And it should come as no surprise that they frequently make science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, in unique and unexpected ways.
From its beginnings, filmmaking has been done by big companies.
Blame it on the costs: equipment, film, all the people in front and behind the camera, and countless other things. It takes a sizable investment to make even a modest movie, and the expense of distributing and marketing is as large—or larger.
But that never put a stop to the outsiders. In the Sixties and Seventies, for example, regional filmmakers like Russ Marker made films for drive-in theaters.
But the invention of cheap 8mm cameras suddenly brought moviemaking to a new generation, including such familiar names as Steven Spielberg, ILM effects wizard Dennis Muren, makeup expert Rick Baker, special effects artist Steve Johnson, and even Peter Jackson. These were usually fairly minimal (although a few made it into the theaters).
In the midst of this, Don Dohler and his friends founded Cinemagic Magazine. They filled its pages with tips for creating movie effects, from creature suits to stop-motion animation, many of which Don later collected in Film Magic: The Fantastic Guide to Special Effects Filmmaking. While the magazine encouraged countless young readers to experiment with film, Don Dohler took his efforts a step further in 1978 and made his first feature, The Alien Factor, in the more expensive 16mm format.
It isn’t hard to see what Don had in mind with his film: it proudly displays a series of monsters created (and worn) by his friends—and the creatures all get their names in the credits! A minimal story wraps around the bloody monster attacks, with gore provided by other Cinemagic amateur experts. Each creature appears on-screen briefly (and one insect-thing barely appears at all as its cardboard carapace wasn’t waterproof!). However, despite his lack of experience, Don uses them well.
While it suffers from the sound issues and poor acting that dog most amateur productions, The Alien Factor ran on the regional film circuit before ending up on Ted Turner’s Superstation. There it ran endlessly on late night for years. Over the next decade Dohler continued shooting DIY films, starting with a strange supernatural horror film, Fiend, and a virtual remake of his first film (Nightbeast). The Galaxy Invader, followed: its real monsters are the backwoods family who encounter a sympathetic alien.
But the market had changed by 1991 and he ran into serious problems with the next, Blood Massacre. He would not direct again until 2001. His final SF film is a sequel to The Alien Factor, and includes a few digital effects alongside his more traditional work. It is far more polished than the original, but it lacks something the rawer film had. He would co-direct one last film before his death, but it doesn’t measure up to his earlier work.
While the general public might not have paid much attention, Dohler inspired a lot of aspiring filmmakers, as did Cinemagic Magazine, which suddenly was in major bookstores after Don sold it to Starlog.
But perhaps the biggest change came with the arrival of home video cameras, which made filmmaking cheaper than ever before. They’d become so common by 1989 that Steven Spielberg appeared at the Boy Scout National Jamboree to unveil a Cinematography merit badge.
At the same time, the VCR sparked widespread movie sales and a new industry of Mom and Pop rental stores. A number of cut-rate companies rushed in to take advantage by churning out vast numbers of films shot on video, many of them made by amateur filmmakers.
It was at this moment that teenaged twin brothers from a sleepy Pennsylvania town launched one of the strangest careers in film history.
In 1987, Mark and John Polonia sold a homemade gross-out horror film, Splatter Farm, to a distributor. It turned them into cult legends and paved the way for an incredible number of singularly cheap video nasties. Their finest moment came a few films later when their answer to Independence Day, Feeders, a movie about insatiable alien invaders, became Blockbuster Video’s number one independent film of 1996.
It is hard to offer any adequate explanation for the brothers’ films: by any objective standard they are frankly terrible. They feature poor acting, inexplicable bits of dialogue, odd little discursions that don’t go anywhere (usually to give Mark or John a walk-on part), and, what has to be their trademark, long scenes of people walking through the woods, talking.
Yet if you’ve seen one of their films (over fifty, by the last count), you’ve probably seen half a dozen of them. There is something about them that makes them an addictive pleasure. Perhaps it is because their sheer homemade badness makes them constantly entertaining, perhaps it is their goofy absurdity (like Peter Rottentail, a failed children’s entertainer who returns from the dead as a giant, vengeful . . . fluffy bunny), perhaps it is because they’ve jammed their films with references to countless great horror and SF films, but more than anything else it is the sheer joy they took in making these movies. They seem to be shouting let’s see you do any better.
John died in 2009, but Mark is still hard at work at films like Landshark, Jurassic Prey and Frozen Sasquatch, where Wellsboro, PA still stands in for tropical islands and alien planets.
We wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of the big changes—even for the Polonia Brothers—was the vast increase in quality in home video from those grainy VHS days. Digital video also made it easier to add digital effects—which are now far easier to create and often better looking.
So, it might seem odd if someone chose instead to create a film that looks like a Fifties B movie.
Christopher R. Mihm’s father loved the SF and horror films of the Fifties, and showed many of them to his son. After his father’s death, Chris decided to make a film his dad would have loved—the horror comedy The Monster of Phantom Lake (2006).
While it parodies many of the weaknesses of those old films, it is at the same time an affectionate pastiche, with an all-too familiar genius scientist, Professor Jackson, who excels at just about everything, on the track of a monster he refuses to believe in.
Jackson returned the next year in It Came From Another World! Another film followed and another, until now there are fourteen “Mihmiverse” films, with two more in preproduction. They range from giant monsters to outer space epics, from film noir creature features to a ghost story and a children’s puppet movie. All part of a shared universe, the characters, places, and backstories repeat from film to film. He boasts a moderately competent amateur stock company, and surprisingly good production values.
These are the kinds of films where “duct tape” is a major expense. They feature cardboard sets and lots of Minnesota exteriors, some moderately impressive homemade monsters, interesting practical effects, and even a few bits of digital wizardry. Their tiny budgets have largely come from sales or are donated by Mihm’s loyal fan base, although Mrs. Mihm keeps busy making and selling “mini-Steves“ (based on Danny Johnson Saves the World’s puppets). Unlike a lot of faux-Fifties films, Mihm’s show a great deal of love and respect for the original films, even if they do mock them just a little bit.
While Mihm has moved to a more ambitious schedule, with two films at various stages of production at a time, and branched out into films that echo other eras, genres and movies, like film noir and the Spaghetti Western. He just released a Hammer Horror-style Snake Queen film and currently has something Lovecraftian and a Scooby Doo-style kids’ mystery in the works.
Joshua Kennedy started out making movies when he was five, with his first creature feature, It Came from the Bathroom.
He posted many of his early videos on YouTube and quickly built a huge audience. Alpha Video released the first of his DVDs while he was still in his teens. He then studied film at Pace University in New York, which has transformed his work from interesting amateur efforts into a series of increasingly assured and professional films.
Even now, he continues to put some of his films up on YouTube, including Dracula A.D. 2015, a remarkably polished film that transplants those classic Christopher Lee Dracula films to a modern university with such quirky additions as a video chat room scene; and The Alpha Omega Man, a gleefully postmodern take on a classic Charlton Heston film.
What is most striking about his oeuvre is the breadth of his range of inspirations and interests: he’s made everything from his version of Airport, a Sherlock Holmes film, a women in prison film—set on the moon—a Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion fantasy film, a science fiction horror film in the vein of the classic Quatermass films, and the stunning The Night of Medusa, which brings German expressionist horror to the halls of Pace University.
Like a lot of other garage band filmmakers, his works look back to the classic genre films he grew up with, particularly the glory days of Hammer’s Horror films. He just finished his most ambitious homage to the British filmmaker, House of the Gorgon, with the help of an impressive cast borrowed from their classic films—and something radically different: The Fungus Among Us, a Russ Meyer Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! homage crossed with black and white Sixties SF horror.
Then there’s the latest film he’s working on, Cowgirls vs. Pterodactyls.
Even professional filmmakers have set up their own micro film studios.
Consider Backyard Productions, a group of British professionals making movies in their spare time. They made six feature-length parodies before creating their most ambitious project to date in 2015, an incredible 5000 pound space feature, The Drift. Which, despite its laughable budget, is superior to most current space borne science fiction films.
They’ve since become Darkwave Pictures and have followed The Drift with a new short set in the same universe, with plans for further films to come.
Then there’s Andrew Bellware, who created his own New York City based micro-studio under the banner of his Pandora Machine production company. He’s created a series of (mostly) interesting ultralow-budget science fiction films that look far more expensive than they actually are, thanks to his professional casts and a lot of simple tricks like filters, static, and layers of computer readouts to hide their limits. They feature densely conceived future worlds and complex science fiction ideas, something far too rare these days. Even his company’s name refers to one of his frequent themes, the unknowable results of releasing machine intelligence into our world.
While his films may never achieve greatness, they do stand out from most of the direct to video SF out there, with his most recent films, such as Prometheus Trap and Clonehunter, among the best he’s made.
Animation would seem the one area of filmmaking where a lone creator would not find a profitable niche. There have been a number of one-man CGI animated films, like Machines Don’t Cry, Flatland, and The Chosen One, but none of their creators have gone on to make further films.
However, traditional animation is far rarer: even renegade animator Bill Plympton, who directs and animates his own films, hires small teams of in-betweeners. Others have stuck to short films, like Robb Pratt, who has a string of films like Superman Classic and Flash Gordon Classic to his credit.
One major exception is the wild and distinctive adult-oriented fantasy, Nova Seed, although whether Nick DiLiberto will be able to follow up his first feature with other films remains to be seen.
However, the garage band animator to watch is Paul “OtaKing” Johnson. His love of classic, Japanese hand-drawn animation led him to create the incredible TIE Fighter Anime short (and the less seen, but equally brilliant Doctor Who Anime). He plans to make creating amazing fan animation films his full-time job and has set up a Patreon campaign to provide him with enough money to live on. Currently, he’s raised enough to give him a fairly decent salary and is working on a much longer short based on the Street Fighter games. Next he plans to create his own full-length science fiction film.
Whether his quixotic plan will succeed is hard to say, but for now, at least, it looks promising.
But perhaps the most remarkable story is that of Brett Piper, who has made a career of creating wild little feature films around his own handcrafted effects. He’s one of the few filmmakers still stop-motion animating his own monsters, and he aims to make films like the great science fiction and fantasy classics from the Fifties.
However, don’t be fooled into thinking he’s a (non-stop-motion animated) dinosaur who refuses to move with the times: his films are digitally composited, with a lot of clever—and mostly invisible—work to cover up any flaws, like stray bits of equipment or crew who ended up in the shot.
While he made his first few films on his own, for most of his career he worked for a succession of low-budget distributors like Troma and Shock-O-Rama.
But that changed with his 2009 film Muckman, when he went out on his own again with a little help from Mark Polonia. He followed it with a string of new films featuring some of his best work ever: The Dark Sleep, Queen Crab, Triclops, and Outpost Earth. Right now, he has a brand-new feature, Redneck Mutants in the works, and for fun is working on a project involving Puppetoon-style short films based on classic SF.
You can see the repulsive “stars” of his new film on his official Facebook page, as he details step by step how he creates them. They are among the most creative horrors he’s ever built, and his page is like a master class in low-budget filmmaking.
What is most remarkable about his work is not his always excellent effects and cinematography, or that they look better than a lot of Hollywood films, but that he could film them at a friend’s house, with miniatures shot on the kitchen table!
It is a strange and often perilous niche of the film market: there is a lot of competition and even a terrible film requires a lot more time, effort, and skill than most people realize. While a lot of young filmmakers have plans to follow their first features with a second, not many actually do so.
And one can point to former garage band filmmakers like Timo Vuorensola who made his best films in his apartment, only to follow them with disappointing professional films.
But there are still a few successful filmmakers out there who have made film after film with minimal help and a Kickstarter campaign or two. On the low-budget end, you find people like Adam Starks, a young man from Portsmouth, England who has made eight films in various genres (including the SF film, Travelers) with the help of his friend Joshua Copeland, while others border on the professional, like Arrowstorm, a group of fanboys who have Kickstarter-funded a lot of fantasy and SF homages like Survivor, Magellan, Cyborg X, and the endless Mythica series.
They range from some that are so amateurish that you wonder why they can’t see their flaws, to some that are as polished as a typical Hollywood film. But what they do have in common is that their creators have had the freedom to go out and make the film they want made.
Which is something that is far too rare in Hollywood. As the quality of inexpensive video equipment and software improves, we can only expect these films to look and sound better than ever—and for a lot of new filmmakers to risk making their own ultralow-budget movies out in the garage.
The best part of all? We can expect them to make lots of new science fiction and fantasy films.
And they won’t be like those made in Hollywood.
Mark Cole hates writing bios. Despite many efforts he has never written one he likes, perhaps because there are many other things he'd rather be writing. He writes from Warren, Pennsylvania, where he has managed to avoid writing about himself for both newspaper and magazine articles. His musings on Science Fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld and at IROSF.com, while his most recent story, "Let's Start from the Top..." appeared in Daily Science Fiction.