Lake Mungo is an unsettling and unreasonably absorbing movie, one that ingenuously merges the structure of a documentary, the mystery of a detective story, the character development of a drama, and the suspense of a horror movie. It’s genuinely good, but because it lacks gore, violence, nudity, and action, I suspect it will not be met with universal praise within the horror community. Like last fall’s surprisingly effective The House of the Devil, this is a film that should be commended simply for having audiences in mind other than teenagers with short attention spans. Rather than assault you with slasher tactics, writer/director Joel Anderson has the temerity to have the characters talk directly to the camera; if we do find ourselves frightened, it’s not because something has jumped out at us but because we see the terror, grief, and confusion on everyone’s face.
That’s the greatest achievement of this film: It takes conventional ideas – poltergeist activity, buried secrets, premonitions, strange deaths – and humanizes them. Not even the brilliant Paranormal Activity could put a face on either of its leads; all effort was put into building a sequence of events. Lake Mungo, more polished and varied in its approach, is edited in much the same way as a Discovery or History Channel special, with a group of people giving on-camera interviews for a team of filmmakers documenting a supposed case of suburban haunting. At the center of the investigation is sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), who drowned mysteriously in December of 2005 while picnicking with her family.
Not long after her funeral, odd things begin happening at the Palmer residence. Noises are heard on the roof and outside the window. The door to Alice’s room keeps slamming on its own, even after it had been taken off its hinges and replaced. The mother, June (Rosie Traynor), begins having nightmares, which become so bad that she takes walks in the middle of the night. At a certain point, she even breaks into other people’s homes, not to steal anything, but simply to get some sleep. The father, Russell (David Pledger), goes into Alice’s room and has what can best be described as a vision, which ends startlingly. Alice’s brother, Matthew (Martin Sharpe), goes to the doctor with unexplained bruises on his body, which disappear just as quickly as they show up. And then there are his photographs and videos, which both seem to reveal the presence of Alice’s ghost.
Before long, June turns to Ray Kemeny (Steve Jordel), a radio host and psychic who specializes in paranormal activity. June likes him. Indeed, there’s nothing especially eccentric about him, although he does have a large collection of cassette tapes. During their first session together, June is put into a hypnotic state and asked to describe what she sees. What we hear is undeniably chilling, but it doesn’t really resonate until later on.
Now, what are we to make of this? Is all as it seems? As is the case with a lot of actual investigations, not everything comes to light at the very start. Consider Alice. At her funeral, news reports quote her family and friends, who said she was a “happy, fun-loving girl with a zest for life,” a “great person,” and “very popular, clever, and lovely.” All very nice, but does it actually reveal anything? People are not one-dimensional – to a greater or lesser degree, we all lead a double life, and of that, I will say no more. Consider Matthew. Do his photos tell the whole story? Maybe they say more about him than they do about Alice. Consider Ray. Let’s just say that, regardless of whether or not they have genuine abilities, psychics always seem to know more than they initially care to admit.
A trail of evidence leads the Palmers to Lake Mungo, a dried-up Australian lakebed Alice had visited during a class trip. What they discover is terrifying, although I’m hard pressed to say that they get the answers they were looking for. We don’t, either. We only have the speculations of a grieving family sitting in front of a camera.
Not bloody enough for you? Too much talk and not enough action? This movie will certainly not do anything for the masked-killer-and-gory-deaths crowd, who will no doubt see it as slow, uneventful, and boring. But for others, it will be regarded highly, seen as a quietly unnerving psychological drama that is legitimately frightening. I may be in the minority here, but I’m confident in my assertion that Lake Mungo is a horror movie, made with the intention of actually horrifying the audience. I attribute most of its success to its compelling character development; we’re actually made to care about the Palmers and what happens to them, or more accurately, what we think happens to them. Good luck finding anything like that in a teen slasher film.