The golden age of horror: Lake Mungo (2008)

Bill: Most ghostly tales employ themes of vengeance or just plain malevolence when trying to explain the reason for the hauntings that occur. Lake Mungo derives its impact almost entirely from its use of loss and grief as the source of any supernatural goings on. It’s a sad tale about the death of a loved one that just happens to have a ghostly twist.

After the Jump: Tragedy meets horror down the the lake

Bill: Chris, this is one of your favorites, isn’t it? I think you’ve championed it before in forum threads that discussed horror films. What makes this resonate so deeply for you?

Chris: I am the certified Lake Mungo honk on the panel, yes indeed. I wish I could tell you that there’s one single thing that makes this movie shine so brightly for me, some single switch that it flicks that makes it stand out to me not just as a great horror film but also as just a fantastic movie in any genre. There are just so many reasons this film just clicks with me.

Bill: For me, the sense of poignancy that permeates every frame of this film is what works best. I went into the film blind the first time I encountered it. I was certain it was going to be yet another cheap found footage film by the box cover and short synopsis. But what I got was closer to A Catcher in the Rye than it was Paranormal Activity.

Chris: The first thing I think that’s important to note is that I don’t think Lake Mungo is a found footage movie. So there! I’d call Lake Mungo a fake documentary with small instances of found footage occurring within those confines. The setup of the movie with the interviews and the back story and the cutting in of key footage implies that this was filmed to document a strange case of a bereaved family in Australia. Within that real-seeming documentary, there are some bits of found footage offered up. If that makes sense.

Bill: I would certainly agree that it’s not a found footage film. The documentary style does work brilliantly within the context of the film, and I highly doubt any other method would’ve had the same oomph.

Chris: Why that’s so important here is that using the documentary style allows writer/director Joel Anderson to tell a very complex story. A found footage film with it’s simple storytelling needs wouldn’t work for this. I’m not sure even a conventional scripted narrative film wouldn’t end up a total mess. By making it a documentary, characters can use interview questions to take us through the myriad twists and turns this movie will present, and do all that without us getting lost.

I do agree with you, Bill, on how the sadness and grief and tragedy seeps in at all corners of the film. I think that’s in a large part due to an excellent cast, all of whom are unknown to me. They act like people who have experienced a staggering loss. Anyone who watches Lake Mungo and who has also suffered a sudden and tragic loss of a close family member (something I’d not wish on anyone, obviously) will recognize these mannerisms. The way the father’s eyes shine with moisture, even as an unconscious smile plays at his lips as he tries to not weep on camera feels real. The way the mother goes from spacey to lucid and back again within the span of minutes is what tragedy like this looks like as does Matthew’s dry mouth and stammering. That they’re a family still trying to sort out emotions and still not having come to grips with their tragedy feels amazingly real to me.

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Chris:One of the things that I don’t think ever gets mentioned enough with Lake Mungo is the photography in the film. Lake Mungo utilizes the skills of a really talented cinematographer named John Brawley, who has done a ton of movie and first rate Australian television work. The town of Ararat where this movie is set is a real place, and seems quite lovely and beautifully shot here. Almost from the very first scenes we get in the film, the camera work just leaps out at you. Lake Mungo–documentary style and all–is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at. In fact, in some ways the assured and artful lensing of the film helps create a mood of trust. We get the feeling right away that we’re in good hands with the creative forces behind Lake Mungo, and we’re easily able to give ourselves over to them.

Bill: I would also add that the use of perspective in the film is quite well done. A few of the screen caps used during the film are revisited later to reveal things the viewer might not have caught the first time around. A figure in the foreground draws your attention away from the crouched figure on the edge of the photo until you’re later pointed towards it. I really love that kind of thing.

Chris: I like that they play fair with the technique, mostly. Occasionally the rest of the image is cropped out of the shot we see, but not always. The thing that I don’t think I noticed about Lake Mungo until I watched it this time around is the sound used in these image sequences. Anderson uses it in a rather manipulative manner, but it sure did work on me. What he does is have these weird, horror-movie discordant music crescendos build up as we see some interesting photos and video footage. It should be cheesy, because there’s really nothing all that particularly scary here, but because Anderson does such a wonderful job of framing the movie as a documentary it totally works. It’s like watching an episode of Ghost Hunters where something actually happens, and I think if you’ve ever cheesed your way through an hour of that show you’ll recognize the technique, and damned if it isn’t effective when used here in Lake Mungo.

Bill: I was thinking the exact same thing about the sound work when I watched it…including the feeling that I was being manipulated. I have to admit that at times I was turned off by it though. I wanted the story to drive my mood at some points, but felt that I wasn’t being allowed to thanks to the score. It felt incongruous at times and served to put me in a place I felt was at a crossroads with the story itself.

Chris: As they say, I think that’s a very fair cop. It feels like it was done at times to help the film to be marketed to horror audiences looking for more overt action in a film. But of all the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the film, perhaps the biggest regards the story and script. About halfway through the movie, there’s the first of an escalating series of reveals. This first major twist seems to absolutely throw folks, and throw them badly. When the film starts, it seems like a documentary about a family where the older sibling, 16 year old Alice, has drowned on a family vacation trip while swimming. The family–stricken with grief–begins to notice weird things. It sounds like someone or something is in the house with them. Then Alice’s little brother Matthew begins turning up photographs that show a ghostly Alice in them. Video cameras are set up and footage of the ghost of Alice is seen.

The first reveal comes when we discover that Matthew hoaxed the ghostly photographs and video. I think it’s a testament to how thoroughly Anderson pulls us into his fake documentary that at this point he risks losing some viewers who can’t move past the fact that they’ve been manipulated into believing the photos and videos are real. The thing of it is, we’re not nearly done with shocking twists here. There are more and it culminates with a very real, very frightening bit of found footage captured on a cell phone.

Bill: The cell phone footage creeped me the heck out when I first saw it. It’s a subtle moment without any fireworks to announce its arrival. It sort of just appears out of nowhere, and the explanation that comes immediately afterwards uses a gruesome comparison photo that features Alice’s corpse. It’s a great “gotcha” moment that lingers still as one of the better scares from the series of films covered thus far.

Chris: It’s a terrific screen capture, because we can sort of make out what it is, and when I first saw the film I thought “No, wait, that can’t be…please let it not be…” And it is. It is a horrifying and dramatic moment that isn’t strictly speaking a jump scare, and as described doesn’t sound terrifying. The movie sets it up just beautifully, though and it ends up being a scream out loud moment in a film that’s been fairly sedate up to that point.

Bill: Backing up a bit, there’s an odd little detour that they take with the revelation of the tawdry affair with the neighbor couple that confused me. It plays up the sense that the audience gets early on that not everyone knew Alice as well as they thought they did, but in a way I thought went against the tone of the film. Did you have any issues with that yourself?

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Chris: In the past I’ve defended this maneuver a little, but with further reflection I do think that it is a total misstep. After many watches, I still am not sure I completely understand why that bit was necessary. What comes before it (the discovery that there’s still something in the house, and it isn’t Matthew faking it) and after (the mother discovering that Alice had also visited with Ray the radio psychic) do not depend on this sequence nor foreshadow it. If they want to present Alice’s secretive, double-life nature, it feels far more within the tone of the film to have it be something else she’s hiding. Maybe got mixed up with some kids selling weed or something (is that illegal in Australia? It is, right?) and Mom finds a dime bag (or even a bottle of pills or something) in Ali’s strongbox. To go with this tawdry, underaged teenage sex thing with the neighbors just seems like an unforced error. At least it does zip by, and further narrative in the film needn’t depend on it.

Bill: Ah well, maybe it’s just our puritanical American ancestry skewing our view of sex that makes it seem so out of place. It certainly wasn’t a major plot point in the film. I’ve seen some reviews in which they speculate that Alice was actually drugged and violated by the neighbors, but I didn’t get that feeling at all. She seemed a willing participant in everything that happened. I think she was just a young woman exploring her sexuality. Why that was necessary in terms of story, I don’t know.

Chris: I think it’s possible to simply take Lake Mungo at face value and find it to be a very heartfelt and meaningful (and frequently scary) movie about grief, but I think the film goes much deeper than that. At the end of all the twists and turns and reveals in the story, what Lake Mungo is really about is loneliness. That’s the real existential dread it pulls up that makes this film resonate so strongly. It can work as a fear of what happens next when death finally comes to call. What if there’s nothing else? What if the other side of life isn’t even void, but just alone-ness, forever? That as deep a fear as any horror movie could muster in me, I think.

To take it even further, I don’t even think one need to bring death into the equation. In the end, Lake Mungo wants us to confront our own fears of loneliness in life, of how time seems to speed away from us. It asks us to confront those fears that edge in, that somehow we remain rooted in place while the lives of those around us move further along, further away. That’s what we see on Alice’s face in those final images. She is a ghost, but a longing, lonely, very sad one.

(Lake Mungo is available to buy or rent from the usual VOD outlets.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)

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