By K. Woodzick, Editor
Northern Wisconsin is not only a hub of outdoor recreation but it also holds the distinction of being the backdrop for films featuring alien invasions, ghosts, haunted pianos and monster trucks equipped with artificial intelligence. Yes, you read that correctly!
Bill Rebane is the master of Northwoods cinema, having filmed 10 films in the area. Through his work with the Merrill Historical Society, Brandon Johnson has spent hundreds of hours working to document Mr. Rebane’s legacy, including conducting over 90 interviews with the cast, crew and other locals who participated over the years in his films. This rich history will not only be preserved at the Merrill Historical Society but also in a book that Brandon is writing.
Brandon grew up near Gleason, and attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he studied English Literature. He spent time immersing himself in the world of film, working on short films, commercials and music videos, and was mentored by Hank Carlson. After returning to the Merrill area, he was introduced to Bill Rebane through his work at the Merrill Historical Society in the fall of 2019. The project started as an exhibit of photographs and posters but quickly grew into a manuscript-worthy chronicle.
Mr. Rebane’s movies were filmed at least in part at the Shooting Ranch. This 40-acre plot of land featured the diversity of landscapes to be found in northern Wisconsin and grew to 120 acres over the course of his ownership. Many Northwoods locals are unaware that such a robust film studio was situated in their backyard for many years.
Most scripts were written or co-written by Mr. Rebane, who often collaborated with his wife and cousin, and crafted the screenplays. A master of invention, he would work to incorporate the community and local settings into his films. Audiences will see local businesses and landmarks, including the Planetarium in Stevens Point.
Mr. Rebane certainly led a cinematic life behind the camera, and Brandon shared a teaser of some of his more memorable adventures, including rubbing elbows with Sammy Davis, Jr., being wined and dined at the Moulin Rouge, and helping create a film that documented the search for the arms of Venus De Milo.
The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) is easily Mr. Rebane’s most popular film, and gained a cult following over the years. It is one of two of his films that have been featured on the popular television show, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the other being Monster A-Go-Go.
If you want to see some of Bill Rebane’s work, Brandon suggests the titles of two films: Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake, which was released in 1981. The plot features a Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired monster who is half man, half frog and will delight fans of 1950s sci-fi films. Brandon’s other suggestion is a film that may resonate differently with modern audiences – The Alpha Incident, which features a small group of people in isolation after a virus outbreak.
Arrow Video released a DVD Box set that includes six of Mr. Rebane’s films, titled “Weird Wisconsin: The Bill Rebane Collection.” They describe him as “the epitome of an independent regional filmmaker.” This set includes: Monster A Go-Go (1965), Invasion from Inner Earth (1974), The Alpha Incident (1978), The Demons of Ludlow (1983), The Game (1984), and Twister’s Revenge (1988). Special features include interviews with Mr. Rebane and a full-length documentary by film historian and critic David Cairns.
In 2009, Mr. Rebane was awarded the Wisconsin Filmmaker Lifetime Achievement Award. Though the Shooting Ranch closed in the late 1980s, he still has a seemingly endless supply of artifacts from this Northwoods landmark. He and Brandon continue to be in conversation as the book progresses. As they uncover film canisters previously thought to be lost to the ages, Brandon discovers new material to incorporate into his ever-evolving manuscript.
What strikes him most about Mr. Rebane’s incredible legacy is that he was able to prioritize putting the community at the heart of his films, inspiring them to get invested in these larger-than-life narratives produced in the Northwoods. Audiences can look forward to not only watching his films at home but also enjoying an extensive future exhibit at the Merrill Historical Society.
Brandon is interested in speaking to anyone who may have worked with Mr. Rebane on a film as he continues research for his book. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
K. Woodzick is a life-long theatre artist and is an experienced non-profit marketing professional and writer. They live in Woodruff with their silver lab, River.