Horror Down Under: LAKE MUNGO (2008)

Welcome to the 5th edition of Horror Down Under, a column series in which I review horror films from my home country of Australia. The purpose of this column will be that it will act as a showcase for various horror related film projects that have been made Australia in hopes that it will get you interested in checking them out for yourself. I’ll be reviewing a wide range of Aussie horror films of various quality from the excellent to the terrible, the all time classics to the latest releases to the completely forgotten, etc. For this 5th edition I delve into the independently made 2008 supernatural mockumentary LAKE MUNGO… 

DIRECTOR: Joel Anderson

SCRIPT: Joel Anderson

CAST: Talia Zucker, Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe, Steve Jodrell.

PLOT: Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns while swimming in the local dam. When her body is recovered and the coroner issues a verdict of accidental death, Alice is laid to rest and her family returns home to grieve in peace. The Palmer’s mournful silence is short-lived when a series of strange occurrences in and around their home leaves them convinced that they are experiencing something supernatural. Seeking the advice of a parapsychologist, who reveals that Alice had been keeping some profound secrets from her friends and family. A series of clues lead the family to Lake Mungo, where Alice’s secret past emerges. 

THE FILM

I don’t know about anyone else but when I think of film sub-genres that always seem to split people right down the middle, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the found-footage/mockumentary genre. When you think about it, it’s not hard to understand why it has always been so divisive among both critics and audiences. Regardless about how you feel about them personally, it’s hard to deny their impact on cinema as a whole. Especially now since they’ve gone from being a unique film-making style to becoming a full blown sub-genre all its own. While the techniques of the found-footage/mockumentary genre is one that can easily be used in used in any genre of film, it’s the horror genre itself where it has been fully utilised the most. Over the pass couple of decades filmmakers from all over the world have successfully used this technique to great effect and created horror films that have been considered by many as classics of the genre (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, [REC], CLOVERFIELD, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY just to name a few). While it hasn’t made entry that’s quite as famous as those ones, Australia has produced a quite a few number of found-footage/mockumentary style horror films over the years. If you ask anyone what they think would be at least Australia’s most well know entry into that sub-genre, it would definitely be the 2008 low-budget supernatural film LAKE MUNGO. While it sadly didn’t do that well at the Australian box office due to its very limited theatrical release, it did received a lot of acclaim from film critics who were able to see it during its run. Luckily the film was saved from near obscurity when it received further acclaim at numinous international film festivals and as well as being selected by After Dark Films for their 4th annual 8 Films To Die For Horrorfest in 2010. Surprisingly at one point Paramount were even developing a non-documentary style remake of the film (that was to be scripted by ORPHAN and THE CONJURING 2 writer David Leslie Johnson) but that ended up not going anywhere in the end. However in the 9 years since it was first released, LAKE MUNGO’s reputation among the horror community has grown worldwide and its now seen by many as one of the best films in the found-footage/mockumentary horror sub-genre.

I must admit that very first time that I heard about the film LAKE MUNGO was when I saw it being reviewed by Aussie film critics Margaret Pomeranz & David Stratton (Australia’s equivalent of Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert) during an episode of their TV show AT THE MOVIES back in 2008. Since it was only screening in a few select theatres in Australia at that time, I wasn’t aware of its existence prior to that episode. After seeing both Pomeranz and Stratton highly praise the film, it made me very intrigued to check it out for myself. Once the film was finally available to rent down at my local video store, I picked up right away and watched it that night. After that first viewing of the film, it instantly became one of my favourite Aussie horror films. Having re-watched it again a couple more times recently before writing about it for this column, I can tell you right now that LAKE MUNGO is still just as creepy as it was the first time that I saw it. Writer/director Joel Anderson (who made his feature-length directorial debut here) has crafted an absolutely terrific and completely riveting supernatural mockumentary that knows how to truly get under your skin. One of the main reasons why I think LAKE MUNGO really effective as a whole is that it’s more than just being a creepy supernatural horror film, it’s also a compelling examination of grief and loss. For me the best type of horror films are the ones that explore very human themes that we as an audience can completely relate to on an emotional level and director Joel Anderson was able to successfully tap into that perfectly with LAKE MUNGO. By making the film in the style of a documentary that uses both interviews and archival footage, Anderson gets us more immersed into the lives of the main characters the ‘Palmer’ family and how each of them has been coping with the tragic death of  ‘Alice’ in their own way. It’s really heartbreaking stuff and I can see it resonating with lot of people who have lost someone under tragic circumstances. Especially due to how believable it’s portrayed in the film. However Anderson doesn’t forget that this is a horror film and once the supernatural/mystery aspects come into play, they add a lot more interesting layers to the story.

For his first time out in the director’s chair, I thought that Joel Anderson did an terrific job with how he directed LAKE MUNGO. It saddens me that he hasn’t directed another project since this one ’cause what he was able to achieve with his very low-budget debut film is extremely impressive. You can definitely tell right away that Anderson took influences from both Erroll Morris’s documentaries and especially the TV show TWIN PEAKS (it’s no coinidence that the family’s last name happens to be ‘Palmer’) in regards to how he approached the film. One of my biggest criticisms with most found-footage/mockumentary films is that no matter how hard the filmmakers try to make their fictional film to look like the documentary, it just simply doesn’t feel like a real one at all. Thankfully Anderson doesn’t fall into that same trap and was able to capture that style perfectly. While you’re watching the film, you can see that he went out of his way to try to make LAKE MUNGO look and feel authentically like a documentary as he possibly could. Even using various types of video and film formats to accurately portray how each of the footage (interviews, home movies, news coverage etc.) would be presented onscreen. It’s that well executed that if you didn’t know that the film was fictional, you would swear that it was a real documentary in how it is made. When it comes to the supernatural elements of the story, Anderson handles them brilliantly as well. The first two acts of the film contain some moments that I found to be genuinely creepy in how they were staged. I think the reason why is they were as effective as they are, is that Anderson approached these scenes as realistic as possible if they happened in real life. Plus it also helps that from both a visual and tonal standpoint, he gives the film a subtle but very eerie atmosphere that just continues to build more and more as it progresses along. However as creepy as the first two acts are, it’s really the third act that’s the most unsettling. There’s one certain scene that happens in the last half of LAKE MUNGO that no matter how times I see it, it still always sends a literal cold shiver up my spine. It’s an superbly staged and frightening set piece that for me is up there as one of the most chilling scenes that I have seen in a horror film over the pass 10 years. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly which scene I’m talking about.

One other area of the film that I thought director Joel Anderson also really excelled at, was how he crafted the film’s screenplay. Instead of writing a traditional script, he took the very similar approach that most mockumentaries do and wrote an extremely detailed outline of the film’s story from beginning to end. Plus since he didn’t write any dialogue in the script too, Anderson got each member of the cast to completely improvise their scenes where they’re being interviewed on camera. While for some actors this approach can be a pretty daunting, the cast that Anderson managed to assemble for the film were definitely up for the task. In their roles as the ‘Palmer’ family, Tania Zucker (‘Alice’), Rosie Traynor (‘June’), David Pledger (‘Russell’) and Martin Sharpe (‘Mathew’) each brought a naturalistic quality to their performances that I just found to be quite compelling. Especially in particular Rosie Traynor, who had the most interesting and emotionally complex character to play with. Also even though she only had a small amount of screen-time, Tania Zucker brought a real screen presence to the role of ‘Alice’.  Other elements that I also loved about the film were Dai Paterson’s beautifully haunting score, Bill Murphy’s terrific editing work and just how completely unpredictable the story can be at times. Just when you think you know where the film is going, Anderson catches us off guard and takes the story into unexpected directions that we don’t see coming. Now despite all the things that I thought were great about the film, there were some aspects about it that I did find to be a bit flawed. While he he is mostly solid in the role of the dad ‘Russell Palmer’, there were some moments here and there I found David Pledger’s performance to a little bit flat at times. Although as the film goes along, his performance does get a lot more stronger. As much as I do love the unpredictability of the script, there was one plot turn that I did feel stretched some credibility with me though. I could say why that is but I would have to go into spoiler territory to explain my reasons, so I’m not going to do that here. Also there were some motivations behind a couple of character’s weird behaviour during the film that I wished were explored a little bit more into.

In the end despite some minor flaws that I found in it, LAKE MUNGO is still a truly essential Australian horror film that I highly recommend everyone to check out. I know some people might be put off the film’s the found-footage/mockumnetary style but honestly not only does it use it to tell a chilling ghost story to great effect, it also uses that same format to enhance both the emotional drama and thematic elements of the story as well. It’s truly haunting film (both literally and figuratively, no pun intended) that no matter how many times that I’ve seen it, it always lingers with me for a while afterwards. There’s no question that LAKE MUNGO is one of Australia’s finest horror films out there for sure and I’m really glad that it’s finally got the recognition it deserves. If you’re on of those few horror fans who still hasn’t seen it yet, definitely seek it out. Believe me, you won’t regret it.

Is there any Australian horror films you would like me to cover for Horror Down Under? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below or tweet them to me at Twitter.com/BedeJermyn. I’ll put them under consideration for future editions of the column.

Bede Jermyn

is a film critic, writer, podcaster and the most terrible Australian you’ll ever meet. Why? Cause he watches all the bad films that nobody else wants to watch. He loves all different types of cinema but he is a particular fan of horror, so-bad-they’re-good and Australian films. You can follow him on Twitter at @BedeJermyn

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