LAKE MUNGO ***** Australia 2008 Dir: Joel Anderson. 87 mins
“I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like something bad has happened – it just hasn’t reached me yet”.
The tragic teenage girl – seen only via stills and home video footage of her before and after death – at the heart of LAKE MUNGO is Alice. As superbly told with authentic performances and remarkable editing, via director Joel Anderson’s “mockumentary” format, Alice is 16 years old and missing, presumed drowned, following a family visit to a dam in the Victorian city of Ararat. Talking heads, emergency services calls, TV news footage, home movies, police videos and, ultimately, post mortem photographs capture the subsequent confirmation of her death. Soon after, her family find their grief-stricken home beset by strange noises, movements in the night – and what appear to be clear indications that Alice is either somehow alive or returning from the grave to her loved ones.
This format was already becoming familiar by 2008 thanks to the various opportunistic variations on 1990s films like THE LAST BROADCAST and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Anderson, however, crafted an inexorably creepy and disarmingly poignant story in which the characters are emotionally haunted by an unjust and sudden loss. Anderson subverts expectations by portraying the seemingly obligatory “psychic” character as a low-key, sensible, reassuring figure in the unfolding story – while tricking us with genuinely creepy images that appear to be resolved by the midpoint reveal of a hoax (a la GHOSTWATCH). All the while, interviews with family members and friends capture the enormous pain of losing a daughter, a sister, a neighbour. There are deceptively understated scenes of real, raw emotional power: an exhumation, a montage of happy times throughout Alice’s short life captured via video and photography. A sequence of Alice’s mum reading diary entries written just seven months before her death is shattering to watch.
At heart, this is a superbly controlled and absorbing 21st century ghost story told through multiple narrators, viewpoints and modern media. The concept of someone sensing their own imminent, untimely death is a truly chilling one – and LAKE MUNGO’s only explicit moment of onscreen “horror” is probably the single most blood-freezing image of recent genre cinema. Its lasting impact, however, and its greatest strength, is in the portrait of characters desperately trying to let go of the tragedy that, ghost or not, will haunt them for the rest of their forever-altered lives.
Review by Steven West