Film Review: "Garden Island: A Paranormal Documentary"

When you think “northern Lake Michigan,” what comes to mind? The Mackinac Bridge and its gateway to Da U.P? Art shops in Charlevoix? Clear, deep water ideal for a day of sailing or fishing?
Maybe it’s the scenic wonder of the region: The rocky cliffs, cool but sunny beaches and vast expanses of forest populated with an eclectic mix of deciduous trees, hardy pines and small wetlands.
Thanks to Chris and Amy Penney of Dogbyte Motion Pictures, you should add a new image to your mental catalog: Haunted Indian burial grounds.
Garden Island: A Paranormal Documentary — shot entirely by the Penneys on location primarily at Garden Island, Charlevoix and Grand Rapids — is the newest indie flick to hit the local theaters. John Serba of MLive reported that the film cost a whopping $1,000 to produce, but the lush visuals and excellent editing results in a film that looks like it cost a heck of a lot more to make.
Think of Garden Island as a Michigan version of The Blair Witch Project. The premise is straightforward: A team of documentary filmmakers trek to Garden Island (an uninhabited speck of 5,000 acres north of Beaver Island that really does hold the largest Native American burial ground in the Midwest) to research the decades-old disappearance of a group of kids who were camping on the island. When the team arrives, they’re accosted by meth cookers. By the end of the film, many of the crew have vanished under odd circumstances — and despite the bizarre readings recorded by the  paranormal researchers they’ve brought along, you don’t really know if the film crew succumbed to evil spirits or to vengeful meth cookers.
For being an ultra-low-budget title, the production values were astonishing. Chris Penney has directed several independent films, so he’s had ample time to hone his craft (and it shows). The mix of lighting, scenery and sounds worked well, and the entire cast felt like a real research team — not like a group of local actors trying to sound like a research team. The humor was real, the terror looked entirely believable and the frustration on-screen at various plot points was eminently plausible. The sense of increasing paranoia shown by Amy Penney, in particular, developed into a crescendo of terror that worked because it played off a fear of being lost and in the middle of the unknown, with the natural escalation of fear leading to panic leading to jumping off the deep end.
The great thing about the film: You didn’t really have to suspend disbelief. The plotting and the acting were of sufficiently high quality that you could let yourself immerse in the story without a mental film critic interrupting with objections about some technical flaw in the film or incompetence by an actor. Within the plot, there was enough of a “yes or no?” quality to the ghost thing, in light of the meth dealers, that you could walk away asking what really happened on Garden Island. That kind of immediate authenticity is hard to come by in independent filmmaking, which often relies on cheap gimmicks or woefully inadequate special effects to hammer the point home well past the point of obviousness. The Penneys let your own imagination play a key role in parsing the events you see on screen — a special treat for people who love the horror genre as it was meant to be.
Special kudos to the cast, led by the Penneys with Chuck Harb, with appearances by other actors who’ve worked with the Penneys before, as well as cameos by real-life members of various West Michigan paranormal research societies.
Garden Island: A Paranormal Documentary screened Friday and Saturday at Celebration Cinema South. Attendance on the latter screening was nice — a crowd of perhaps 50 or more. Films like this one deserve a wider release and more careful study by other local filmmakers.
Garden Island ought to get an award for mixing high production values, thoughtful plotting and excellent acting into one tidy package. That films like this can still get made in a world where “independent films” feature million-dollar budgets should be enough to give you goosebumps.
Want to learn more? Check out the film’s Facebook page.

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