Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo ★★★★½

Joel Anderson directs this riveting horror drama that is almost impossible to put into a box. At one point as I watched the movie I mused to myself whether or not this film should be classified as a found footage movie or not. As soon as I began to settle on that designation I felt that it was not apt to really put the film into that kind of description. In a way it felt very reductive to what Joel Anderson was able to accomplish here. The film doesn’t lean into any safe horror movie gimmicks in order to get under its audiences skin, but instead leans into the grief and trauma a family endures when one of their own is inexplicably taken from them in a drowning accident. This is all presented to us as a documentary using archival footage that’s comprised of the local news station, cell phone footage, and interviews with the deceased members surviving family. The Palmer family are presented as a wholesome loving family that seemed to get along rather well. There isn’t extremely grimy secrets hiding in their lives, well, at least nothing that isn’t beyond what most normal families can go through. What I’m really saying is that this isn’t a Hollywood horror film family. There aren’t ancient demonic curses or anything like that. This is a completely ordinary family, which to me is this movies secret weapon. By making the family grounded and real, the disturbing things the family goes through feels more personal and real to the audience. 
     Now have you ever seen Michael Haneke’s Cache? If you recall in that the film, the director would linger on a specific shot for extremely long periods of time. It’s a fascinating film, and to a degree I felt that this film tapped into the same creative continuum as that art house classic. Unlike Paranormal Activity, this movie has a far more deeper understanding regarding the mysteries that can exist within an established camera angle, and to the films credit, the audience is given ample time to scrutinize what is exactly happening in the Palmer’s home through their stationary cameras. For a brief period of time I felt that the cameras recording through all the late nights were going to be used to show some easily acquired jump scares. Apparently, that is not Joel Anderson’s concern. In a way, I recall watching Unsolved Mysteries as a child, which had some episodes that dealt with weird supernatural shenanigans happening in suburban homes. This movie transcends that whole basic talking heads formula because all of the spooky events that do occur are inextricably linked to each of the family members and the stages of grief that they are enduring. 
     The members of the family presented in the film are Russel Palmer (David Pledger), Alice’s father, June Palmer (Rosie Traynor), Alice’s mother, and Mathew Palmer (Martin Sharpe), Alice’s brother. Alice is obviously the drowning victim, who drowns during a family outing, but isn’t discovered for three days. What ensues after the tragedy are events that are multi layered from a storytelling perspective. Events begin to unravel secrets from the past that start to make things from the present seem all the more clear. Meanwhile, seemingly portentous supernatural events occur, which aren’t extremely overt, yet they begin to grow and fester in our minds. Who was Alice and how much did she know of her potential demise? The movie meticulously gives us the same motivations as Alice’s family as we are all swept up in a mystery that challenges the very notion of our own individual destinies. When death approaches, do we start to see signs and portents, or are things objectively clear? Here’s how I felt about a lot of what this film unpacks: We all have secrets that we don’t want those we love to know about. However, we all also want closure more than anything. Our feelings of empathy for the family in the movie is triggered because we sense that they are ultimately looking for emotional closure with an impossible tragedy. We never truly lose someone because in a way their memory becomes a ghost in our lives. We wonder if they can see us as we go through the day to day minutia of our lives, and if so, do they look upon us approvingly? 
     Some of the scariest moments in this movie work profoundly well because we can feel the characters emotions. For instance, June feels regret for not connecting with Alice better when she was alive. She does a meditative session with Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell), a medium of sorts. He puts her into a state where perhaps she’s connecting to the spirit world and she starts to go on a tour of her own house, but it’s here where things get tricky. When is she doing the tour of this house? The medium leads her through the rooms, but is this the same house that exists in our plain of existence? This is all presented with very moody lighting that isn’t overdone in ways that horror films are known to do. The house is just dark enough to give you the chills. The movie also incorporates a lot of time lapses, especially of Alice’s vacant room that seems like an uninhabited mausoleum, just better decorated. All of these basic lighting and editing techniques gel well enough together to create a genuinely disturbing atmosphere free of the usual distractions of hidden ghouls and monsters. The movie carries the true weight of grief, which is far more terrifying than any ghoulish entity. 
     If there’s one horror movie that operates in the realm of grief, but incorporates a monstrous entity, it will have to be The Dark and the Wicked (I know that there are others, but this one is very recent in my memory). As effective as that film was, it eventually succumbs to allowing a monstrous demons to start dispatching its characters. Lake Mungo is the opposite of that movie in that it has enough discipline to remain a movie about grief while still finding very creative and innovative ways to give you goosebumps. The few grisly images that the movie depicts are strategically employed to achieve maximum effect on its audience rather than numbing them down with violence. You see something absolutely terrible and the movie allows it to linger in the back of your mind. This allows Joel Anderson to affectively lay the groundwork to give you one hell of a spooky yarn that will stay with you long after the movie fades to black. And frankly, the way the movie is constructed makes you want to watch it again, especially with someone else who’s completely unaware. 
     This is a fantastic ghost story that ranks with some of the best in the genre such as Session 9, A Ghost Story, and GhostWatch. In a way it feels like two different movies combined into one. A family tragedy about learning how to cope and move on, and a mysterious bump in the night feature about the mysteries of how the living and the dead coexist together. The way Joel Anderson blends all of the different formats together is ingenious, and he ends up masterfully scaring us and breaking our hearts for 82 minutes. I can’t believe he doesn’t have more movies to his name because he is exceptionally skilled, and he seems to have a good grasp on human nature. His cast does marvelous work here and helps to anchor this sad story while also not overacting. Everything is calibrated just right for this flick to work as well as it does. In lesser hands, this movie would’ve been a failed experiment. But thankfully, Anderson had the right instincts to tell his scary tale. I highly recommend this movie.

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