The Northwoods of Wisconsin’s 1980s Horror Films & FANGORIA Connection?!

I just visited my old stompin’ grounds up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin & it peaked my interest into a specific window of time in the late 1980s & early 90s when apparently horror movie productions were a hot commodity up there-Fangoria was on the cutting edge of “cheesehead” fright flicks! Who knew? So waaaay up north there’s a cluster of small towns, Eagle River, Three Lakes, Sugar Camp & Rhinelander that were the main staple in filming many of these late 80’s early 90’s horror films. There was a unique studio all the way from the UK that oddly made it’s headquarters somewhere between this little group of cities. My mom currently lives in Three lakes (we had a cottage on a lake there since the 80s, my dad grew up there, my Aunt does too and owns a property in Sugar Camp & my mom also just bough a property in Rhinelander) alas I have spent a LOT of time there throughout my life. In fact I was just up there for an entire month. However I never suspected it was a mini horror mecca until recently. Why? Well let’s find out! Wisconsinite horror fanatics, this one’s for YOU!

Windsor Lake Studios which was based in Eagle River, Wisconsin, (I’ve heard possibly Sugar Camp Wisconsin too?) population 1300, produced a number of films for Fangoria and a few other smaller VHS only companies, though a few actually have made it onto blu ray over the past few years. Oddly only one of the trio of Fangoria Films releases have seen blu ray releases. At the time it was a big deal in the horror community when they started producing their own movies. It’s strange to me how or why a movie studio that produced predominantly horror flicks was open and operational in this tiny region nestled in the thick of the Northwoods and it’s plentiful chain of lakes. It’s definitely NOT Hollywood in the Northwoods-I can fully attest to that! That being said you just might run into a Rhinelander, Hodag (pictured below) in the woods if you’re lucky enough..

Windsor Lake Studio was started in 1987 and attracted the talent of Eagle River native Hank Carlson, only a teen at the time but had ambitions to be the “next Tom Savini”. He went on to become quite an impressive practical fx artist getting his start at Winsdor Lake by being annoyingly persistent, visiting the studio property many times though univited. There’s a great interview with him right here for all of you locals who want the scoop on this regional horror legend. He also gives some excellent perspective in the commentary of the Arrow Video blu ray’s for ‘Trapped Alive’  & ‘The Chill Factor’.

The three owners of the studio were from the UK and producers of major Hollywood hits ‘Heathers’ and more notably ‘Hellraiser’ & ‘Hellraiser II: Hellbound’. Apparently the premiere for ‘Hellraiser’ happened at the Vilas theater in small town Eagle River where Hank Carlson worked. I wish I’d have known that back then dammit!

Mark Armstrong (who also worked on Blood Harvest filmed in Wisconsin), horror fanatic Chris & Cheryl Webster were the primary forces behind Windsor Lake Studios. They built it as an alternative to the expensive shooting locales like LA and New York, trading the glamour and glitter of the big cities for the small town, forests, lakes & cold winter. He brought with him on the journey north, production designer Brian Savegar from the UK but for the most part used local talent to work on their horror projects. They had a deal with ‘Film World’ out of New York to produce three half million dollar movies and all they needed was an interesting place to set up shop.

Windsor Lake Studios was set on 600 acre summer camp that the producers bought from the Girl Scouts near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, they could entice film studios to make their movies there for a good price as they owned everything, constructed their own sets and there wasn’t a need for major equipment rentals as well as relatively cheap lodging for the actors who’re often times flown in. Filmmakers could take a bit more time to get “the best” results for their films but in return the studio still faced the harsh Northwoods winters, which at times wasn’t an ideal situation.

It’s been stated that many of the actors weren’t exactly thrilled to he hanging around in the extreme cold either and some even complained of the local restaurants not being cultured enough with a diverse menu they’d been used to coming from New York or LA. However while Chris Webster’s gang was scouting for land in the USA they noted that the wintery landscape was actually something they were indeed looking for, assuming the unique backdrop would be something that might draw interest from Hollywood. They were able to attract the interest of the then newly announced Fangoria Films, already a major powerhouse of horror with their print magazine.

The Windsor Lake Studios horror catalogue consisted of Trapped Alive (1988) a horror movie that took place mainly in a cave system completely constructed inside a warehouse on the property. It was also used prominently in the next two films to save on costs and even utilized the big indoor swimming pool at the camp for water scenes. Trapped Alive was released on AIP home video on VHS. Upon watching the credits I realized there’s actually someone I’m related to in them! Yowza!

The Chill Factor (1989) aka “Demon Possessed” (released by AIP on VHS) featured a unique plot about hot shot snowmobilers put into an “Exorcist” type situation deep in the woods on a frozen lake. Though a clever premise the movie didn’t quite deliver the chills rabid horror VHS addicts hoped for. I still think it and Trapped Alive are worth a watch anyway.

And it’s lesser known and far lesser loved bastard child of the “Windsor Lake Trilogy” The Inheritor (1990). This one was able to grab the acting skills of Dan Haggerty for a cameo, more well know to the world as Grizzly Adams, however even Haggerty’s charm in his brief role couldn’t save it from fading into obscurity. Of the Windsor Lake Trilogy it’s the only one that hasn’t been given the blu ray treatment only a VHS release by Vid America.

For Fangoria they first produced Mindwarp (1990), that grabbed horror icons Angus Scrimm of Phantasm fame & Bruce “Evil Dead” Campbell. What a combo, I’m sure Hank Carlson must have been extremely excited to jump on board this one.

Then Children of the Night (1991), a personal favorite of mine, was able to grab ‘Hellraiser 2 / Ticks’ director Tony Randel to direct and SNL alumni Garrett Morris, 21 Jumpstreet fan fave Peter Deluise, horror icon Karen Black and the daughter of famed Monkee Ami Dolenz. It’s the best of the trio of Fango flicks and one I’m really hoping gets a proper blu ray release.

And finally Severed Ties (1992) that again featured Garrett Morris as well as Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer & some impressively gooey practical fx before finally calling it quits for Windsor Lake Studios and also Fangoria Films. This one’s a lot of fun too and is set mainly in Rhinelander, Wisconsin in the industrial area of town. It plays out and feels a lot like an extended “Tales from the Crypt” episode.

In between though they also managed to get behind ‘Meet The Applegates’ in 1990, a dark comedy with horror leanings, which I remember fondly being filmed in Neenah Wisconsin, where I was living back then.

Meet The Applegates, which starred Ed Begley Jr, had been considered such a big deal for the area (The Fox Valley) at the time. I’m most definitely thinking that one deserves a rewatch soon. Still though I can’t help but wonder just why Webster & Armstrong chose Eagle River/Rhinelander/Three Lakes of all places to actually hunker down at? I wonder how long they were searching and where else they’d been considering? Perhaps it was Armstrong’s stint as post production supervisor, working on the cult horror flick Blood Harvest, filmed in Wisconsin in 1985 with Tiny Tim that got the gears turning?

Also there were actually a few other horror movies made in the Eagle River area before 1987 like ‘The Omen II’ as well as a Bill Redbane’s 1984 forgotten flick ‘The Game’, filmed at the iconic Northernaire resort in Three Lakes Wisconsin and cult horror film ‘Bog’ (1978) filmed around nearby Minocqua. I imagine this was quite an exciting time for the Windsor Lake Producers, it sounds like they had high hopes to be a major player in the film industry. However Fangoria Films folded after the release of ‘Severed Ties’ in 1992, Windsor Lake Studios also called it quits.

Perhaps the subzero winters took their toll? It seems that a 6 year stint though in the Northwoods of Wisconsin trying to run a horror film studio was a good ambitious run and likely has so many unique stories attached to the journey. So what became of The Websters, Armstrong & FX master Hank Carlson? Well Hank went on to work on a big run of cool movies: Doppelganger (1993), Super Mario Brothers (1993), Army of Darkness (1992), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and is still working the special fx magic today. Chris Webster was still producing movies til 2011, just not in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. A few are: Primal Force (1999), Deadgirl (2008), Seance: The Summoning (2011).

The rest of the group I can’t find much more about but it sure was interesting trying to figure out just how this unique area of Wisconsin I’ve loved so much as a kid had a true taste of Hollywood. I’ve only recently discovered how deep it went and this summer when I go back I’ll do a little sleuthing of my own and surely visit a few of the locations from the movies if they still exist. I know exactly where most of ‘Severed Ties’ takes place in Rhinelander, so when I visit my mom there I’m checking it out and talking to the locals!! Yay for northern Wisconsin’s RICH horror history!









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