Synopsis: When Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) goes missing during a family trip to Lake Mungo, her parents and brother are shocked. When a body is dredged up some days later, one which her father Russell (David Pledger) identifies as his daughter’s waterlogged remains, the family enters the grieving process. Unfortunately, not everyone in the Palmer household has the sense of closure Russell has. Apparently, not even Alice herself. Sounds from her room, haunting dreams, and other seemingly supernatural events start to convince mother June (Rosie Traynor), brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe), and even Russell that Alice’s ghost might be haunting the house. The family then consults cameras, a psychic investigator, and other tools to find out if this is the case and then why. The exploration into this affair is recorded in writer/director Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008).
Head Full of Ghosts and Growing Things author Paul Tremblay knows a good movie when he sees one. At least he does in the case of Lake Mungo. When our local Alamo Drafthouse programmer (and horror buff) Robert Saucedo invited Tremblay down to Houston this past September to select and host a double feature, the first picture Tremblay chose was this little slice of horror disguised as a documentary. It’s a slow burn flick and it changes tones and directions along the way, starting out as a ghost story, doubling back to show that it might not be a ghost story at all but a tale of anxiety and grief, then coming back on itself again to reveal some crime elements, and then ending up in a is-it-or-isn’t-it supernatural territory that invites the audience to decide for itself. Tremblay summed it up as a horror movie, through and through, one tackling “the horror of hope.”
The film gets unfortunately lumped into the found footage category of horror flicks. In fact, this is misleading. While the movie incorporates fictionalized “footage”, it is really told in a documentary style. Director Anderson presents his story via interviews with the family, scenes shot of police dredging the lake, a body removed and shown in coroner’s photos, and then materials taken from the family’s exploration of its haunting matters. These disparate elements all come together to present an intriguing mystery, one which allows the audience to play active roles as detectives (we sift through this material to form our own conclusions) as well spectators. Lake Mungo is a film that revels in developing unease, disorientation, and general eeriness. There are a couple of moments that can elicit jumps (one of them continues to work on me even though I have seen the film already and know it is coming), but these are built into the narrative as the end result of a suspenseful setup. Anderson knows what he is doing, and he pulls of the feature’s high moments masterfully.
The picture is a slow one, so audiences looking for a Dark Castle sort of funhouse ride will likely be left wanting. However, it’s an intelligent horror film, a tale of loss and grief, and it is a candid view into its characters. This warts and all approach lends the piece some gravitas. We have an earnest family, but not one that is made up of perfect people. They can be duped, they can dupe one another, they can hope too much and therefore pay a terrible price, and they can move through all the stages of grief while we watch.
The ghostly parts are the reason most audience will come to the movie, and the characters are why they will stay with it after the last frame has passed. This is all for the good, I suppose.
When the film was first released here in the states, it arrived as part of the 8 Films to Die For series. That series then spawned the After Dark line of scary movie features. Horror films are difficult to lump together. Some features work, some don’t, and while I had my reservations about a few of those pictures, I am a believer in Lake Mungo. The latter uses the documentary format to its advantage, giving us an honest presentation of people caught in dire emotion and coming out the other side. It also gives us a few creeping dread moments (not too many) to get the blood pumping and the mind turning.
The closest thing I can compare the film to (in order to do it justice) is one of Peter Jackson’s early features, a flick called Forgotten Silver, which purported to be a documentary of a New Zealand filmmaker who came up with all kinds of innovative techniques (including color photography) well before the rest of the world. Like this one, that film is also fiction (a mockumentary, they called it, though such a name strikes me as pejorative). That film is a fun little gedunken, while Lake Mungo is a far moodier exercise. However, both show playfulness on the parts of the filmmakers.
As a film going experience, Lake Mungo is not exactly a cheery one. It is an exquisitely rendered picture of the grief a family undergoes when it suffers the unimaginable. However, for the explorer into the further regions of sensation, the (perhaps morbidly) curious in search of well rendered portraits of sorrow, futility, and self-deception, it is a fascinating film.
Also, it is a film that inspired some aspects of Paul Tremblay’s second literary horror novel, The Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Although he has jokingly referred to that book as fan fiction of this film, in fact the two pieces hold conversation with one another. Fans of that book would do well to seek out this film. Likewise, new and old fans of this film that have not checked out that author’s work would be well served. Tremblay is and author who is not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve.
The movie itself is a well-executed feature. By selecting the documentary style, it certainly gives itself room to explore creative uses of its obviously low budget. At its best moments, the film achieves a gloriously giddy exploration of that fuzzy, almost dreamlike realm to be found along the banks of a lake where a girl drowned or the house where her family still keeps the light on (in case she wants to find her way home). The sound mix, the imagery, the creative incorporation of still photography, and a final end credits crawl through some missed moments in the feature itself, are all well executed. However, the film is at its most isolating, most melancholy and most beautiful when it is presenting wide angle views of the Australian countryside. It is a place where people could get lost or lose themselves quite a bit. Regular readers of this site might recall how I did an Ozploitation double feature some months back. While I would not categorize Lake Mungo as an exploitation picture, per se, it nevertheless manages to evoke that same sense of wide open spaces found in Razorback and Body Melt. Australia is a country made for horror films, it would seem. I’d like to see more of them.
Tomorrow, for Halloween, we will tackle another double feature: The Old Dark House, 1932 and 1963 versions! Stop by and check it out.
“SHOCKtober Movies: Lake Mungo” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Posters are taken from IMDB.