Lake Mungo – Review
Strange things start happening after a girl is found drowned in a lake.
It’s Day 16 of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween horror movie review feature. Today we are taking a look at another movie that has proved divisive – Joel Anderson’s Australian Mockumentary Lake Mungo from 2008.
I am a huge fan of Lake Mungo. It is, however, one of those Marmite types of movies that seems to divide people down the middle. I have not seen too many people who are neutral in their opinion of it. Using a mockumentary style format not too dissimilar to Noroi: The Curse, Lake Mungo was part of the Found Footage boom of the past 15 years.
It is slow moving, the scares are subtle, and the story is not particularly traditional for horror. If you are in the mood for something different, however, then Lake Mungo might be perfect. Let’s take a look. As always I will run through a quick breakdown of the movie first. You can feel free to skip this if you like.
We are reviewing a horror movie a day for the entirety of October 2022 leading up to Halloween. Most of these reviews will be shorter and more straight to the point than my standard format. We will feature a range of movies from horror classics to international hits and a few indie darlings. You can check out the entire K-O-Ween feature by clicking right here.
Lake Mungo (2008) – Synopsis
Lake Mungo opens with the Palmer family talking to an interviewer about their daughter Alice, played by Talia Zucker. The family recall how they took a trip to the Ararat dam. During the trip, Alice and her brother Mathew, played by Martin Sharpe, were out swimming in the middle of the water. Mathew, not wanting to get cold, headed back to the shore. Around 15 minutes later, Mathew asked his mum and dad where Alice was. She was not on the shore and could not be seen in the water.
The family, unaware of what had happened to Alice, contacted authorities and a rescue team was brought in. The search was set to take a long time so the family were told to head home and that the team would let them know if anything is found. The search goes on for a number of days before the family are called with the news that a body has been recovered.
The authorities believe the body is that of Alice and need someone to confirm the identification. Alice’s mum June, played by Rosie Traynor, can’t bring herself to do it so Alice’s dad Russell, played by David Pledger, agrees to go. Russell confirms that the body is that of Alice and informs the family.
But is Alice Really Gone? – Synopsis Cont.
Shortly after Alice’s death, the family discuss their difficulties coping with the grief. June has been having nightmares and wandering the streets at night to avoid having to sleep. She says she has been going into people’s houses to feel like she is someone else.
Russell, after a day at work, heard a noise coming from Alice’s room. He entered and sat on the chair at the end of the bed. While he was sitting there, Alice, despite being deceased, walked in and sat at her desk. She eventually noticed Russell sitting there and shouted at him for being in her room. He ran out of the room and was found crying uncontrollably in the kitchen by June.
Believing there is something strange going on, Matthew sets up cameras in the house. He wants to try and capture evidence of a ghost. The family also contact a local psychic to help them get into contact with Alice. It isn’t long before Matthew sees Alice in some of the pictures he has taken. She also appears in videos of the house and in a video of the family performing a séance with the psychic. It is now very apparent that Alice is still in the house, the question is how?
Lake Mungo finds itself placed somewhere between mockumentary and found footage. The movie is presented as a documentary about the death of Alice Palmer. We have a mix of different styles all brought together to create a very convincing documentary aesthetic. The movie features handheld camera footage taken by the characters themselves. Absolutely awful phone camera footage that looks like it was filmed on a potato. Interviews with the characters in the movie, old photos and home videos as well as news footage. When it is all put together you have a movie that is very similar to Noroi: The Curse which we reviewed a few days ago as part of our 31 Days of Halloween feature.
Joel Anderson has done a fantastic job of making you think you are watching a real documentary. He has also made use of the gorgeous Australian scenery to add a layer of haunting beauty to the movie. The use of time lapses of the sky are particularly nice looking. Long lingering shots on barren landscape help illustrate the loneliness of some of the characters. The creative use of many different styles of filming keep everything looking fresh.
The documentary style combined with the found footage aesthetic is likely to put a huge bunch of people off straight away. Found Footage is fairly divisive and there have only been a handful of decent mockumentary horror movies. Right off the bat Lake Mungo is swimming upstream. I think to immediately dismiss the movie for these reasons is short sighted. It is well worth sticking with Lake Mungo as you may find a fantastic horror here that will stay with you. The mockumentary style movie is rarely done better than it is in Lake Mungo. It is incredibly convincing and captivating throughout.
A Slow Burning, Haunting Story
Lake Mungo sets its story up gradually and slowly bleeds out its scares. It demands attention to what is happening and reels you in with a sympathetic family suffering from an awful trauma. This is a truly disturbing tale and, as the movie goes on, it becomes even sadder. To lose a young daughter on a family day out would be bad enough. The revelations that come out about Alice as the movie goes on only add to the family’s pain and anguish. It’s a profoundly sad story.
This is a family that, perhaps, had more issues than they realised and the documentary style is a perfect way to reveal this. We are constantly learning new things about Alice, her home life, and her life outside of the home. While this is happening, we are also being exposed to the haunting things happening to the family. They still feel Alice’s presence and bizarre things are happening that the viewer becomes privy. Whether this is a manifestation of grief or an actual haunting slowly becomes more apparent.
It is this mix of grief and the paranormal that makes Lake Mungo so compelling. You eagerly anticipate the next reveal. You genuinely want to know what has happened to Alice and whether the family are actually seeing her ghost or not. It is incredibly gripping for anyone that enjoys slow burn horror. It helps that Lake Mungo is expertly paced. You are never left bored. There are few better examples of combining family drama with a slow burn mystery and a legitimate ghost story.
The mockumentary style horror movie demands convincing performances from its actors. Lake Mungo has this in spades. There really isn’t a weak performance in the entire movie and some stand out for being absolutely amazing. It is almost as if the actors actually experienced the events of the movie and were just relating them to the camera as they would in an actual documentary.
Rosie Traynor, in particular, is incredible. There are parts of the movie where you could legitimately believe that she lost her daughter and was heartbroken. At one point she is reading her daughter’s diary and the emotion she displays is so believable and authentic. It’s a powerful scene in a movie full of powerful scenes. It’s worth keeping in mind that there was no script for this movie.
The collective cast’s performances are one of the things that makes Lake Mungo such a compelling watch. You are never once taken out of a scene by awful acting and the characters seem genuinely invested in what they are talking about. This investment means that when they talk about something they saw or something that happened you believe them. As far as mockumentary and found footage horror goes, you would have to go a long way to find an overall better cast.
Some Genuinely Scary Moments
Lake Mungo features some legitimately fantastic scares. These aren’t scares in the traditional sense and won’t do much to entertain fans of jump scare horror. Lake Mungo is far closer to a psychological horror that tries to get into your head. The scares come predominantly in the form of the tense atmosphere that is carefully cultivated throughout the movie.
There are a few scenes, however, where Lake Mungo tries to scare the pants off of you. Due to the tense atmosphere, you are always somewhat on edge but these specific scenes still seem to come out of nowhere. The realistic style of the movie makes the scares all the more plausible, as well.
There is a distinct need to watch the background during Lake Mungo. The director rewards the more observational viewers with some seriously haunting moments. There are movies that really overdo this but Lake Mungo certainly does not. You won’t be spotting something in every scene but when you do it is typically impactful and well placed.
Not for Everyone
Lake Mungo almost certainly won’t be for everyone. The documentary style presentation will put a few people off, for one. It is a slow moving story, as well, that relies on atmosphere, and a viewer with a keen eye, for most of its scares. I am sure some people will not even consider it a horror movie at all. The horror genre is incredibly broad but some people’s enjoyment of horror is very linear.
Lake Mungo is slow paced and the context of the scares comes from the story being told. If you are a viewer that is likely to get bored without a decent amount of action then you may want to skip this entirely. It could, perhaps, be argued that the documentary style nature of the movie takes away from the scares somewhat. We are, after all, being told about events that have already happened. I, personally, don’t think this is the case. The documentary style offers a layer of realism to everything. I actually think this really adds to the horror but I doubt everyone will think the same.
A Few Minor Frustrations
There are a few points in the movie that may frustrate viewers. I think we could have done with knowing more about Alice. I recognise that this is a difficult thing to do given the context. We don’t learn that much about her and there are certain revelations that could have been expanded on. One in particular doesn’t really go anywhere and will potentially leave you frustrated. It seems like such a significant revelation and the movie doesn’t elaborate on it much at all. As my partner put it when talking to her about Lake Mungo, they seemed to have a lot of ideas and not enough time.
There is another revelation in the first half hour that takes all of the tension created so far and flushes it down the toilet. It does recover and build things back up pretty quickly but I am not entirely sure why it was done like this. Being honest, it actually really took me out of the flow of the movie when I watched it for the first time. It took a second watch for me to know that was coming and to not let it impact my overall enjoyment. None of these things are a big problem if you are a fan of this type of thing but, if you aren’t, some people may be completely put off.
Is it a Knockout?
Lake Mungo is an often overlooked horror gem. Combining elements of found footage with a mockumentary style presentation, the result is a frighteningly realistic story of a family attempting to deal with tragedy while being haunted by the ghost of their young daughter.
Featuring a tense atmosphere, Lake Mungo weaves a story of horror that grips you from start to finish. It takes a keen eye to extract all of the scares out of the imagery on display and the slow pace may not be for everyone. The story is sure to stay with you long after it ends. The scares are subtle but some of the most effective I have ever seen. If you are a fan of slow burn horror then you absolutely have to check Lake Mungo out. Whatever you do, don't skip the credits. A fantastic movie all round.