“Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets, a secret.”
This week we’re continuing to look at some of the films from our recent 50 Underrated Movies You Need To See contributions. There are only a handful of horror films in my list that I haven’t reviewed, but one of the best is this week’s unsettling, documentary style indie from Australia.
I first saw Lake Mungo in 2010, as part of the After Dark Horror Fest. The only other film from that group that I remember is Dread, the adaptation of the Clive Barker story. Mungo was the film that actually filled me with dread, though. It was unsettling and creepy with a lingering sense of horror and sadness. I loved it. I’ve watched it a few times since then and it always has an effect on me, even though I know all of the twists and turns.
The film seemed to disappear after that, with only the occasional appearance on streaming. I never really understood why, when it’s one of the best found footage movies of all time and one of the better horror films of the last twenty years. It’s not a big, loud, bloody film, nor does it annoy and distract with a ton of night vision footage of people running through dark woods. It’s almost sedate and… I want to say clinical, but that’s not the right word. Professional is perhaps better. There’s a distance to the film that’s enhanced by the setup – that this is a documentary – but that very distance makes it more realistic. Believable. Horrible.
One of the mysteries of Lake Mungo is what happened to its director, Joel Anderson. Other than a writing a short film (the 2013 Gravity parody Gravity With a Paperclip) he’s pretty much disappeared from the cinematic landscape. Lake Mungo didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, but it’s a fantastic first effort. That such a quality film didn’t lead to more work for (and from) him is a tragedy in its own right.
Lake Mungo is currently streaming for free on Tubi (with ads) and for subs on Amazon Prime and Shudder. I watched it on Prime and it looked considerably better than the DVD release I’d seen it on previously, though the film features a considerable amount of low-quality video footage, some of which is shot on phones from a decade and a half ago. You can also rent or purchase the film from the usual online suspects.
The only physical option in the US has been the After Dark Horrorfest DVD from Lionsgate that came out in 2010. It was serviceable, but nothing special. Second Sight Films in the UK is releasing a special edition Blu Ray this summer, and as it’s region free I may just have to pick up a copy.
Lake Mungo is about a family, the Palmers, struggling with the tragic death of their 16 year old daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker). In the aftermath of this event (at first they aren’t even sure she’s dead, just missing) a number of strange events happen. The family brings in a psychic to help them make sense of things, though all may not be as it seems.
Lake Mungo manages to insert a freshness into the ‘found footage’ genre by building a narrative out of fragments that are inserted into the larger framework of an imaginary documentary. It FEELS authentic – there’s no stretching to find a reason for the camera to be always on, no narrative gymnastics to impart essential information. The clips are revelatory in the best sense in that each photo, each video clip reveals another part of the mystery and the framing structure gives it both cohesion and an emotional weight.
They really nailed the sort of documentary feel that you might see on a cable channel like Discovery or A&E, and that realistic feel sucks you into the story. The actors are, without exception, really good. Nobody breaks the illusion – never once was I thinking “that person is a good actor” or “that person is a bad actress.” Everyone sells the reality that the movie sets up. The script was, apparently, simply an outline. Each scene is essentially an improv, and all the more impressive given that fact. Even the way the audio is done, with background echoes and the occasional question interjected by the “interviewer” adds to that feeling of authenticity.
Ghost stories never really frightened me much as a kid. In fact, I always found them comforting in a way. Ghosts, if they exist, are proof of existence after death, and how is that not comforting? The psychic character in the film, Ray (Steve Jodrell), even mentions that the majority of his clients are dying people looking to be assured that there IS something after this life. In that context ghosts, even murderous ones, are proof that we continue. Lake Mungo turns this on its head. While it does touch on the possibility of an afterlife as a way of dealing with grief, it also poses the question: what if knowing there’s an existence after death wasn’t a comfort?
“Death takes everything eventually. It’s the meanest, dumbest machine there is, and it just keeps coming and it doesn’t care.”
Grief is also a core element of ghost stories, and it’s one that’s near and dear to my heart. I always think of grief as a fire that burns you, changes you. An ember that never quite dies, and can flare to life at any time. The best horror stories about death and grief – and I’m thinking of films like Hereditary and The Babadook, as well as Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary – center on the characters dealing with how the weight and substance of the death of a loved one warps reality, changes you and your life. You can see it in how the Palmers each deal with Alice’s death in their own way. Dad Russell (David Pledger) throws himself into his work and affects a “what can you do?” attitude that’s belied by dark circles and uncomfortable pauses. Mom June (Rosie Palmer) struggles with accepting Alice’s death at all, and finds herself wandering into stranger’s houses at night, looking for moments where she’s part of a world where her child isn’t dead. And brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe) turns to photography, which leads to both revelation and heartbreak.
There are a number of twists and turns to Lake Mungo. That opening quote is pretty descriptive, in that there are secrets upon secrets. Revelations are to be had, and some of them are quite devastating. If there’s any drawback to the film it’s that it’s a bit slow in spots – though honestly, I don’t really find that a failing. The sense of dread that is apparent from the very beginning and the slow burn on the creepiness never seems to stop. There are a few real jumps, but they’re emotional as well as dramatic. I got shivers thinking about them even after the film was over. (Stay through the initial batch of credits, by the way, for a last handful of revelatory images.)
I’ve stayed away from a detailed description of the storyline of the film because I think going into it without knowing the details is the best way to experience it. That being said, it still has power even after all the twists and turns. It’s a film that haunts you, like Alice seems to haunt the Palmers, and for me it makes me wonder if knowledge of an afterlife would be any comfort at all. Sometime the living get to move on. The dead never do.
The Bottom Line
Lake Mungo is a fantastic horror film, and one that I’ll happily recommend to anyone who likes subtle, emotionally complicated and unsettling horror films. The scares may be understated, but the film is so well-made, so creepy, and so emotional – despite that professional distance – that it stays with you, like those images of Alice, both dead and alive.