LAKE MUNGO (an unfortunate title, I concur) is a 2008 “documentary” from Australia, written and directed by Joel Anderson. It tells the tale of Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), a sixteen year-old girl who dies while on vacation with her family, by drowning in Lake Mungo. Her remaining family is father, Russell (David Pledger, an Australian Richard Gere), mother, June (Rosie Traynor), and younger brother, Mathew (Martin Sharpe).
Soon after Alice’s death, a series of strange and inexplicable events occur in the Palmer family universe. These are all (conveniently) captured in photos or video, a conceit agreed upon by all involved in “found footage” and mockumentary movies. However, these first photos and videos that surface provide the film’s creepiest moments. If viewed alone with the lights off in the middle of the night as I did, and not in the afternoon with your buddies while texting your girlfriend, they are genuinely scary.
Without spoiling too much, a series of story twists occur, and this becomes my biggest criticism. While these reveals maintains the movie’s main theme of grief, it lessens the impact of later developments and renders future scares impotent, all at the detriment of the overall movie. It’s an unfortunate miscalculation by Anderson.
Eventually, secrets of Alice’s past come to light. This is not uncommon after the sudden and premature death of someone. (Minor example: After my dad died, we discovered his real middle name was actually “Cornelius” and it wasn’t just a joke nickname given to him by his brothers and sisters, as he had forever reported. I feel ya on that one, pop.) Suffice it to say, Alice’s secret isn’t that her middle name is Cornelius; she is involved in something a sixteen year-old girl should not be, and while aspects of it are left ambiguous, it clearly affected her.
All these events lead the story back to the central setting of many of the film’s unfortunate events: you guessed it, Lake Mungo, a dry lake that includes the dam Alice drowned in. Her cellphone has been located and includes video footage she captured shortly before her death. Perhaps the build-up to all this is too much, but when this footage is finally revealed, it didn’t have the impact on me that, I’m guessing, it wanted to. The idea is scarier than the reality, in this instance.
Anderson sets the mood and atmosphere of the film right from the beginning, and does it well, maintaining an unsettling, surreal, dream-like state, and you never feel quite comfortable while watching. It’s very effective. Assisting in this is the cinematography of John Brawley, who beautifully shoots the rural and suburban parts of Australia, and the music of Dai Paterson and Fernando Corona accompanies the spooky images perfectly.
As previously mentioned, LAKE MUNGO’s central theme of grief becomes obvious early on, more specifically, how each remaining member of the Palmer family grieves for Alice in his or her own way, which can range from weird to desperate, but is always sad. You really feel the absence caused by her death.
Giving authenticity to this “documentary” is the fine acting. I believed everyone involved, and a lot of people are interviewed: grandparents, co-workers, police officers, Crocodile Dundee, school-mates, friends, etc. (Just kidding about C.D.)
The movie can be accused of having a slow pace, and at some points it does, but at only 89 minutes, Anderson provides enough twists, turns, and creeps along the way to hold your attention. I enjoyed the slow burn. Fans of gore or jump-scares will be disappointed; the film has none.
Released (probably somewhat out of place) in the U.S. in 2010 as part of the After Dark Horrorfest 4, the movie garnered enough attention that a U.S. production company planned to remake (and ruin) it in 2009, but to date, I have not seen any more information on that (fingers crossed).
Also, make sure to stay tuned in during the ending credits.
Despite these few flaws, I believe writer/director Joel Anderson accomplishes what he set out to do with LAKE MUNGO. I can’t deny, the film stayed with me for a long time, and I can’t say that about many films.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Paul Williams is an award winning screenwriter and director. You can find his short film STABLE (which recently appeared in the New Jersey International Film Festival) on this site (see it to the right under “Crash Files”), and his latest venture, CHANCE ENCOUNTER (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mcGnpSHCiY&feature=youtube_gdata_player), which was selected for the 2013 Garden State Film Festival.
(Photo from Shockya.)