Do you know what’s lurking behind the trees in the woods? Low-budget productions! Swarms of them, in fact. Lighter equipment, longer battery power, and natural production value make forests the ideal breeding ground for cinematic thrift. Thrift rules in Zach Lona’s surprising debut, He Who Lives in Hidden Lakes.
The Hidden Man is some guy in the woods covered in dumpster rags. This makes all the fuss amateur cryptozoologists make over the mysterious trash sculptures the Hidden Man leaves all the funnier. Even the mayor, Joan Jameson (Shannon Angel), describes the woodland creature as “a deranged hobo.” However, there are plenty of true believers that Oracle Joe (Kevin K Gomez) can get to pay him for his non-refundable Hidden Man tour. Joe has a special connection with the Hidden Man, who leaves him gifts of fish in a ceremonial suitcase.
In the forest, we meet Margaret (Sarah Kopp), who leads the cult Disciples of Gaia, who worship the Hidden Man’s mother as she gave birth to the messiah. Part of that worship is burying disciple Alex (Rachel O’Connell) completely in the dirt with only a straw to breathe out of. Sounds fun.
“The Hidden Man is some guy in the woods covered in dumpster rags.”
Also, in the woods is rogue officer Garrett (Lucas Lona). He’s camping out and trapping hippies who can help him track down the Hidden Man through magic mushrooms. While these nutty characters all hunt the Hidden Man, Oracle Joe is approached by an older woman (Helen Liaskos-Lona), who says she is the Hidden Man’s Mother and wants help finding her son.
He Who Lives in Hidden Lakes has all the elements of a true home-brewed movie; a weekend project amongst friends to go out in the woods and make a film for kicks. It even has a ludicrous half-assed creature, an amusing staple of the modest genre, as the poverty is on parade with the Hidden Man’s costume. However, Lona pulls off some brilliant alchemy by changing the genre from a wacky comedy, which it does well, to a reflective drama with fantasy elements at play.
The results are engaging on a level far deeper than just tee-hees. The filmmaker creates a complicated study of belief with a lot of world-building around the Hidden Man. It’s remarkable how easy it is to take characters designed for broad comedy and deploy them for drama once we’ve met them. It is almost like watching a Reno 911 episode that suddenly goes into Hill Street Blues territory.
The climax is dark and mysterious, which wasn’t what I was expecting and thoroughly enjoyed. Lona once again proves you can add major production value without spending any money, just with the imagination installed in the script’s architecture. He Who Lives in Hidden Lakes is a no-budget wonder that will draw you into places you weren’t expecting to go.
"…a no-budget wonder that will draw you into places you weren't expecting to go."