There exists this exquisite location somewhere right between a documentary, a dramatization, found footage, a fictionalized accounting of events, and a full on horror show. This venn-diagram of a locale is a rather tough place to pinpoint and few films have ever wandered there. That was of course until 2008 when Lake Mungo was released.
Being a sucker for great horror film names, poster art, and over-the-top hype that accompany so many films in the grisly and gory underbelly of the genre, I was always put off by the quiet subtly of Lake Mungo. Not to mention, the name evokes a Sid and Marty Kroftt visualization of goofy LSD-inspired cartoon weirdness. That aside, Lake Mungo’s marketing effort never spoke to me. I stupidly waited 12 years to peep this masterwork and I could not regret it more.
Lake Mungo, directed by Australian director Joel Anderson, follows an earnest family as they set about to determine the secret variables that surrounded their daughter Alice Palmer’s (Talia Zucker) death. The matriarch of the family June Palmer (Rosie Traynor) is understandably distraught by her daughter’s drowning and after hearing an AM radio psychic, she decides to enlist his services to see if he can provide any insights from beyond the grave.
To say that Lake Mungo is merely a subtle film might be one of the great understatements in film history. Director Joel Anderson uses simple interview techniques that lull you in to an day-dreamy Errol Morris-like documentary state of mind. Every word that dribbles from the mouths of June Palmer, her husband Russell (David Pledger), and her son Matthew (Martin Sharpe) is perfectly placed and believable. The credibility that the film creates not only manufactures a genuine interest in the mental health of family, but an intense desire to unfold the mystery surrounding Alice Palmer’s death.
The psychic that June hires, Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) is also immediately impacted by the family’s plight. He delves deep in June and Alice’s relationship and in a series of prescient interviews begins to understand a palpable distance between mother and daughter. While June and Ray are exploring the darker side of familial relations, June’s son Matthew, a budding young video auteur, begins to see ghostly images of June in photos and videos. The problem is that the photos and videos had been taken months after his sister Alice’s disappearance.
Throughout Lake Mungo, director Joel Anderson slowly and painfully unfolds pieces and parts of Alice’s life. The family interviews, all shot in retrospective time frames, allow for each family member to reasonably explain their mental status around the time of Alice’s death and reflect on the horrible information that’s been put in front of them. Understandably, each family member is measured, quiet, and reflective. This allows for the film to breath and deliberately let the viewer become an integral part of the ghostly fact finding. A rare feat, made even rarer in the brash and unrelenting world of horror.
Lake Mungo is devoid of gory nastiness, laughable jump-scares, and scream queen screams. That is precisely what makes this one of the best horror films in the past 20 years. Many directors strive to be able to tell a story with such devastating emotional fury, but unfortunately get caught up in the ham-fisted need to jolt, rattle, and holler at the audience. It’s a rare accomplishment when a film so quiet and understated can glide right under your skin and haunt you for days. While the found footage community continues to look for new an inventive ways to deploy the found footage construct, they’d be well advised to give Lake Mungo a thoughtful look before they begin filming their next found footage opus.
Lake Mungo is Rated R and currently streaming on Amazon.