Lake Mungo (2008)
Jason and I recently talked a bit about found footage films. They have been a staple since The Blair Witch Project and a craze since Paranormal Activity. But what we rarely see is a straight-out fictional documentary—Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&Man are notable exceptions (the former a horror/comedy about a media savvy serial killer and the latter a dark, disturbing look at extreme horror). The best example I have seen so far is Lake Mungo, a release from After Dark Films*.
Lake Mungo is the story of the Palmer family—parents Russell and June, and son Matthew—who’s daughter/sister, Alice, recently drowned. Her death sparks a downward spiral of events. First, June demands an exhumation, fearing—hoping—her husband misidentified the body. When no doubt remains of Alice’s death, the possibility of a haunting presents itself. Matthew sets up cameras and documents what certainly looks like the ghost of his sister. But this is a film about secrets, and every time we think we have an answer, a new question pops up. The family seeks out a psychic who isn’t quite on the up-and-up, and they later learn that their neighbors have ties to Alice they never could have imagined.
Halfway through, our expectations and beliefs are shattered. The supernatural is replaced by a real-world twist that knocks us off balance. And makes us wonder where in the world the movie will go from there. We start to see a tragedy unfold—a drama about a confused, scared sixteen-year-old who felt she had nowhere to turn. Her journey—and her family’s as they retrace her last days—culminates at Lake Mungo. The answer they find is the creepiest thing yet.
This film works because it takes itself seriously. I don’t even use the term “mockumentary” because there is not a hint of satire or dark comedy. From the crackly 9-1-1 call that opens the action, to the verisimilitude of news coverage about Alice’s drowning, to the deadpan interviews of family, friends, and police investigators, Lake Mungo’s realism makes The Blair Witch Project’s famed efforts look like the minor league.
I should warn you that this is not a movie full of scares and screams. Writer/director Joel Anderson does not present a fright-fest. Instead, this quiet movie weaves a tapestry of intrigue, not jump scares. This film looks and feels like those Halloween episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. Or a spooky version of the tremendous documentary, Dear Zachary. The story is equal parts grief and ghosts, and the Australian stoicism of the characters presents a subtle yet absorbing tale.
The real payoff for horror fans comes with the end credits. It’s too good to spoil, so I shall just tell you to stick around until it’s all over. But the end result chilled me for days after I watched this movie.
Lake Mungo is a slow burn for sure, and it won’t be for everyone’s taste. But its subtlety entranced me. The ever-evolving secrets and mysteries kept me captivated until the end. And the absolute perfection of its documentary façade is beyond impressive.
Four Dweller Heads!
*After Dark Films produces some of the best horror films out there. Check out the festival’s “8 Films to Die For” and you almost can’t go wrong!