The only non-day job productive thing I really did this week was watch an old After Dark Horrorfest movie called Lake Mungo, a brilliant little mockumentary set in Australia, that not only emulates a documentary in every sense of the word, but also offers a fantastic sci-fi twist that pretty much holds the film together through the final act.
If you don’t know/remember After Dark Horrorfest, it’s because it hasn’t been around for a couple of years. Horrorfest was an annual indie horror film festival held in October that played in theaters around the country. It ran from 2006-2010, although it’s finally back this year as 8 Films to Die For. If you’re curious, here’s the website. You can also find most of these movies on DVD. This was actually my first time watching anything Horrorfest ever released.
I haven’t much experience with Australian horror films either, although I’ve never seen one I didn’t like. The first I ever watched was probably Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, starring John Jarratt, because Quentin Tarantino was attached to it somehow, and I remember enjoying it. I can’t say that much violence is my cup of tea now, though.
Last year’s Bababook was my favorite horror movie of 2014, despite the ridiculous third act that pretty much undid most of what I’d liked about the film to begin with (i.e. really needy children are more frightening than a monster from a pop-up book). Still, the first two acts are perfect and can’t undo what came after. Isn’t that so often the case with horror films? (More on that some other time.)
WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD.
Lake Mungo is a very different monster, down to the fact that it feels like it belongs on the History Channel or Discovery. Joel Anderson, who wrote and directed the film, found a way to make this mockumentary seem respectable, as if it belongs in a lab to be mulled over by scientists. Everything from the production value (this isn’t shaky cam) to the way the camera often pans out to the beautiful Australian landscape and night sky (which lends its very own eerie touch) gives it the feel of an art movie.
It helps that the characters aren’t your average mockumentarians, those reckless adventurers into the unknown that so often get themselves way in over their heads (it’s about the only arc they can possibly have). No, these people are scared shitless, and don’t often pick up a camera themselves, except in one or two instances when they set up a tri-pod in a hallway to record overnight. Because that’s a must in any modern ghost story since Paranormal Activity, which came out a year before Lake Mungo in 2007. But for the most part, this family of father, son, and brother aren’t trying to fuck with the dead.
The story is pretty simple for the most part: the Palmers are grieving the death of their daughter, Alice, who drowned in a dam in Ararat, Australia. The family recalls how weird Alice seemed before she passed, worried, distant, and nervous. When they start to see and hear things from Alice’s old room, they decide to set up a camera to record a possible intruder...or a GHOST. As you may have guessed, this only triggers more paranormal activity, as the ghost tries to communicate with the family. She even appears in the artsy photos her brother Matthew takes of his backyard throughout the film. (You can see one of the photos above.) Eventually, the family calls in a psychic, because that’s always a good idea. The rest is a rollercoaster ride, with only one little thread that doesn’t quite fit, except for a little sex appeal and to show that Alice kept lots of secrets from her family.
Although there are a couple of moments where you’re supposed to jump, I wouldn’t classify Lake Mungo as a scary movie. It’s ten times more eerie, because of the serious tone and the way it’s packaged as a very real thing that can’t be explained. The film is unsettling, as it plays “Where’s Waldo?” with Alice’s ghost. On first glance, like those dumb shock pictures people sometimes share on the internet, it’s hard to catch glimpses of Alice in the background of pictures and videos, but when you finally do, they always make your skin crawl. The ghost is made more terrifying by the fact that we’re not sure what it wants. It’s not belligerent or particularly talkative. It just stands there, photobombing the shit out of everything. Alice is scary because we don’t know what she wants, as she stands there waiting for us to understand the nature of her presence.
There are two truly horrific scenes in the movie that I won’t spoil here (I’m not an animal), and they both lead into a sci-fi heavy conclusion that I never expected but was pleased to reach. The looping aspect of the story, which could easily show up on a Doctor Who episode (if it hasn’t already), gives us an unwanted (we’re begging for it, but are terrified by it when we finally get it) glimpse into the secrets of the afterlife, at least in this mock universe meant to be our own.
And when the film blows us away with the truth of Alice’s death, it doesn’t handle it in a campy way. We’re not suddenly treated to people running for their lives, a frantic camera showing us nothing but the rushing ground. The discoveries are handled with serious care, with respect, as an archaeologist would approach the truth behind the infamous disappearance of an entire village. The next scene isn’t someone holding a seance to vanish Alice’s ghost forever. It’s about understanding the truth and coming to terms with it. We may never know the why, but we may find comfort in knowing we got as close as we could.
By the end of Lake Mungo, we’re still not sure how it all came together for Alice in the end, at the moment of her death, which she knew very well was on its way, but we know how it comes together for her family, who are finally able to find peace within the chaos of a tragedy. And that’s all Alice really ever wanted.
While Lake Mungo is admittedly a slow burn, especially in its middle section when things get a bit too intricate, the unsettling moments really shine through, as a story about the importance of family and life after death quietly forms. And you’ll get a different flavor of horror mockumentary along the way that shows what a serious approach can do for the genre. I highly recommend you sit down and watch this one.