When cinephiles talk about film, we often find ourselves discussing directorial careers; the trademarks, the way we see their identities as filmmakers emerge and change. That’s fascinating, but equally interesting in their own way are those directors who give us only one film to look at. It might be a singular masterpiece (Night of the Hunter, Carnival of Souls), a cult item (The Honeymoon Killers, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), or a contender for worst film ever made (Manos: The Hands of Fate). In the case of Joel Anderson, writer/director of Lake Mungo, what we have is not just a great film, but real unfulfilled promise of a career we’re yet to see.
Lake Mungo is a faux documentary (not a mockumentary, there is not an ounce of parody here) telling the story of the Palmer family in the wake of the drowning death of 16 year old Alice (Talia Zucker). Her parents June and Russell (Rosie Traynor and David Pledger) and brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe) are obviously devastated, and all begin to notice that their home feels strange. When Matthew notices a ghostly image of Alice in a picture he took of their back yard, and another is seen in a video taken at the place she died, the family contact a psychic (Steve Jodrell) and begin to investigate.
Found footage films and faux documentaries seldom create any verisimilitude for me. I find myself asking what exactly we’re watching, how the footage was captured, or why the characters are still filming at a given moment. Lake Mungo not only avoids these pitfalls, it may do so even more convincingly now than it did on its 2008 release. Presented as a feature documentary, Lake Mungo now looks almost exactly like the sort of true crime docs that appear week after week on Netflix.
It has the glossy scene setting images in crisp 35mm, the straightforward talking heads footage and the archive of realistically varied quality, from 2005 standard mobile phone footage to TV news clearly shown from late period VHS recordings (shot and edited by a real local news crew). There are no unmotivated angles or camera movements. All in all, you never have to question what you’re seeing, meaning that everything has a base level of reality you believe in, making it all the scarier when things that seem supernatural happen.
This realism extends to the performances. The cast is largely unknown, most of them having done little on screen work either side of this film, but the acting is pitch perfect all round. Part of that would seem to be because the dialogue is largely improvised, which means it has the authentic sound of coming straight off the top of the characters heads—something even the very best actors struggle to fake.
As a horror film, Lake Mungo works on two levels. Firstly, it’s an outstanding ghost story. Anderson uses space and stillness beautifully. He draws our eye to look for the dark corners of his frames, but does so without making the film feel more composed than it should be (much of what we see being automatic cameras set up by a teenager). He also knows how long to let these moments linger, never allowing the film to become what I’ve found a lot of recent ghost movies to be: an exercise in waiting for nothing to happen. It’s these instincts, as well as his grasp on the performances that both make the film so special and make it so sad that Anderson hasn’t followed it up. Anderson isn’t big on scares, but the image of Alice’s bloated recovered body will lodge itself in a viewer’s mind, and the one true jump scare in the piece not only works on that level, it lingers both as an eerie image and a major thematic concern.
Carrying that thematic concern through, Lake Mungo is a great and surprisingly affecting film about loss and grief. It’s tough to explore all the avenues of emotion the film travels down without spoilers, but suffice to say that while the grief of Alice’s surviving family is front and centre, influencing decisions they make which take the plot in some surprising directions, pulling the rug out from under the audience effectively, the film also explores Alice’s grief, loss, and fear. Right up until the very last moment of the film, Anderson tugs on this thread in ways that are both skin-crawlingly creepy and pack an emotional punch.
Lake Mungo creeps up on you. Over several viewings I’ve found it burrowing further each time, until now it stands as film that is both unnerving and affecting at a bone deep level. It really can stand with one and done greats like Carnival of Souls.
Picture wise, Lake Mungo doesn’t demand much of its HD transfer. It faithfully reproduces the many different formats on which it was shot, but given the deliberately lo-fi quality of many of them and the ‘mistakes’ built into the cinematography for an authentic feel, this is nobody’s reference disc.
A stacked package of extras includes two commentaries: one with The film’s DP and one of the producers, the other with academics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood. Also notable are 13 minutes of deleted scenes, sadly they mostly demonstrate that the long editorial process was worth taking the time over. Interviews with producer David Rapsey and two of the actors, along with video essays, and appreciations from fans and filmmakers Rob Savage and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, fill out the disc. Finally, the limited edition comes in a hard cardboard case, and is packaged with an 80 page book of writing on the film. The only thing that keeps this from being totally definitive is the complete lack of involvement by Joel Anderson and the film’s leads.