I love finding that diamond in the rough, that film you’ve never heard of that you take a chance on and wins you over. Writer/director Joel Anderson’s 2008 film Lake Mungo is one of those instances for me. I recently heard about this film the way I guess most of us do these days: on twitter. Enough people whose opinions I respect were tweeting about it, so when I saw it pop up as streamable on amazon prime, I hit play. This film is a gem I wish I hadn’t gone so long without seeing. I went in knowing nothing, which I feel is the best way to see this film. I don’t know how much I would have fallen under its spell if I knew anything past the premise. While I will go into detail about this film, I hope it doesn’t ruin any surprises for you.
In 2005, a tragedy occurs when 16-year old Alice Palmer drowns in a local dam. In the months after her death, her grieving family sense a ghostly presence in their home and are convinced she is trying to communicate with them. Filmed as a faux-documentary, Anderson’s tale is an engrossing one of grief and the unknown.
For about 15 minutes, because I knew nothing going in, I wondered if this was a legitimate documentary but refused to look it up at risk of diluting the experience. It’s not of course, it’s a faux-documentary, but the fact that it made me question it longer than five minutes should tell you it does a damn great job. It is deeply unsettling because of how plausible it all seems. Also, it’s Australian, which always puts the horror up a notch, because Australia is terrifying. It’s mood sets in immediately, with the deceased Alice narrating how she thinks her death is coming while stills of ghosts captured on images are right up in front of you. Anderson sets the mood right from the beginning and holds it for a tense and sorrowful 90 minutes. Many modern horror films are scary and terrifying, but how many are haunting? How many cause you to double guess the movement you just caught out of the corner of your eye, to scan the dark for what may be looking back? Hereditary? It Follows? The Conjuring? Add Lake Mungo to that list. It sears itself into your brain with that special brand of unease and paranoia that only film offers. I don’t mean this as a dig on any modern horror film I don’t consider necessarily haunting, I just mean to illustrate how hard it is to achieve that lasting feeling. It’s really hard!
It’s all the more eerie for how authentic the documentary aspect of it feels. The whole thing is just made so damn convincingly. There are sequences where you feel like Errol Morris or Werner Herzog might have constructed them, curious about how people grieve and confront the uncertainties of death. The actors deliver their lines in an unrehearsed manner that just feels authentic. These characters feel lived in in a way faux-footage rarely achieves. They don’t feel like characters, they feel like real people you might know. Because of them, the tragedy of Alice’s death and the grief and trauma that they experience feels real. That makes the more chilling moments hit because you are so attached to these characters. When a ghostly presence appears in an image, you are scared because of these characters. Anderson expertly plays hide and seek with the ghosts that haunt the camera. Your eyes are darting around the screen looking for the ghost in the frame, looking for the thing that doesn’t belong. I got genuine chills at certain moments when an otherworldly presence is caught on camera. It’s worth a rewatch just to go back and see if you can spot certain things in the images the first time.
What really sets this film apart is even despite how haunting its scares are, it’s just as concerned about the emotional resonance of grief and closure. Even as they find out more about her life before her death, there’s not some mystery or conspiracy to solving her death, everyone is just searching for some form of closure. But ultimately, closure comes when they accept there are certain things about her death they may never know for sure. They don’t know how she drowned inexplicably. Lake Mungo is an immensely cathartic film as these characters learn to lean into the unknown and be okay with uncertainty.
It’s disheartening that this is the only film Joel Anderson has done, because it’s clear he’s a director who knows what they’re doing and how to do it well. It was buried as a largely straight-to-dvd title at the time, and it couldn’t even get the proper treatment that route. Even the taglines on the posters for this film get key information wrong – they state the triggering event takes place in 2008 when it actually takes place in 2005. How did this happen? Did the studio really just not care to that far of an extent? Right now there is no blu ray release for the film, which is unfortunate because I can only imagine the special features on how this was made would be a real treasure. But I suppose all we can do now is move forward, isn’t that what the characters learn? We can cherish it now. We can appreciate this haunting, sad and cathartic film from a director we never saw anything else from. All we can do is cherish it now.