Lake Mungo (2008) Reviewed

“Lake Mungo” 2008

Last October, Paranormal Activity was heralded by(too) many as the scariest movie in years. It wasn’t. LIES! Lies, I tell you! In addition to a plethora of other problems, it was saddled with bad performances by unconvincing actors as unlikable characters. It derived it’s chills from suspicious foley clanking and spontaneously combusting Ouija boards. And no matter which version you saw, the final act was an unimaginative cop-out. But it turns out, the greatest crime perpetrated by PA has only recently become evident: it’s probably the singular reason few will end up seeing the vastly superior, similarly themed Lake Mungo.

Both PA and LM beg comparison to the decade-old (really? already?) Blair Witch Project. Both are presented as “documented evidence,” like BWP. Both chronicle the effects of a paranormal disturbance’s toll on the lives of “regular people.” And both attempt to spin horror gold from amazingly low budgets. But where PA felt improvised and free-wheeling, LM squeezes an artfully constructed narrative from the implications of a true-life haunting.

Part of what was widely considered PA‘s appeal was that it was shot on video, giving it the authentic look of a home movie. Well, yeah- I guess. BWP did the same thing but far more effectively. BWP doesn’t get much respect these days. I’m not sure why but I could guess that few people are able to view it with the fresh, unspoiled eyes required to buy in to its concept. People complain about the unscripted bitching, the meandering storyline, and the fact that most of its literal shock moments can be attributed to cracking twigs and the voices of giggling children. That’s fair – but not the whole story. It’s all but forgotten that the movie’s low-tech scares are hung from a richly detailed myth that it’s filmmakers only reach out and tag a few times in the first reel. But it’s that mythos that holds all the shaky-cam hysterics together, and brings the story full-circle in its final chilling moments.

PA is a lot like what BWP would have been if you stripped out all the story and were left with two hours of Heather Donahue screaming from just out of frame. LM goes the other way, by favoring a high-gloss professional documentary look over the homemade “it’s ugly so it must be real” aesthetic of BWP and PA. And it has story to spare…A great story that develops slowly and delicately, with well-developed characters, authentic family drama, and utterly believable performances from all involved.

For starters, LM is about as authentic looking as any fake documentary I’ve ever seen. I can easily imagine stumbling upon it late at night and being entirely convinced that I’m watching a serious investigative special. One thing it has going for it, stateside anyway, is that the entire production is Australian and us yanks are less likely to be skeptical of unfamiliar actors with foreign accents. What’s more, unlike PA, LM has a tightly-written script. Though their deliveries are completely natural and feel unstaged, there’s little of PA‘s awkward overlapping improvisation from LM‘s performers. Characters are often slowly revealed through a first-person interview format and unscripted, observational footage is employed judiciously. This allows for a deliberate, suspenseful unpacking of the movie’s narrative. And what a narrative it is:

The Palmer family is suffering the loss of only-daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker), who disappeared while swimming during a family picnic. Within days of burying her, the rest of her family–Mom, Dad, and teen brother, Matthew–begin experiencing strange phenomena in their house. The disturbances quickly become spooky and more personal and the grieving family is forced to seek help from a local, marginally well-known radio psychic who quickly insinuates himself into their home and lives.

As the Palmers search for answers to the mysterious goings-ons in their home, they begin to uncover secrets that they didn’t know Alice had been keeping in life. Disturbing secrets that point to a well-guarded second life and an intimate portrait of a beloved daughter who sensed her days were numbered.

When Alice’s secrets start to swirl in the movie’s second half, that’s about the time David Lynch fans will sit up in their seats and squeal that it’s no happy accident Alice shares her last name with the equally-doomed, fatally-flawed tragic teen at the center of Lynch’s Twin Peaks mythos.

What makes LM‘s supernatural chills effective is their relative subtlety. Rather than jolting us with unexplained sound effects, LM indulges in the eerie effectiveness of ghost photography; whether its mysterious figures in the background of snapshots, or unexplained human forms moving in the shadows of birthday party video footage. It’s a simple, effective, (and for the filmmakers, CHEAP!) strategy for delivering spooks on a budget.

LM is also exceptional for its low-key approach to its own horror dynamic. Rather than dealing in shocks, jolts and turn-on-the-lights terror, it takes a heartbreaking family drama about grief and sprinkles an identifiable sense of dread and uneasiness in the margins. This is not to say that LM doesn’t deliver on a few “what-the-hell-was-that?!” moments–it does. But they’re incidental to the story being told, and they resonate because we really do sympathize and relate to the (figuratively and then some) haunted and shell-shocked primaries.

LM is a rewarding viewing experience because it offers no easy answers to the questions it poses, but still draws to a satisfying, well-earned finale. The story twists and turns along the way and almost seems in danger of letting a few, unreliable-narrator tricks undercut its mysterious supernatural aura. But LM knows what it’s doing and still manages to put all (…well, most) of its pieces back together so that questions you’re left with as the credits roll don’t nag like plot loopholes, but instead shine like masterful brushstrokes.

On top of all of that, LM shows you just how beautiful a low-budget movie can be. Cinematographer, John Brawley, knows how to capture the lonely emptiness of lost loved one’s bedroom and the menacing chill even familiar places like our homes can take on when grief and sadness seem to hang tangibly in the air.


The bad news is that Lake Mungo is slated for a U.S. remake featuring the same story told as a traditional non-doc narrative. The good news is that the original’s writer-director, Joel Anderson, has been signed to direct the American version. After watching what he’s capable of on a low budget, how could I possibly avoid taking a chance on whatever becomes of that?
***1/2
Watch the trailer for Lake Mungo:

~ by Number5ive on February 11, 2010.

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