Directed By Joel Anderson
Starring Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe and Talia Zucker
Shot in 2008 but only now getting a US release through After Dark’s ’8 Films To Die For’ banner, this small, subtle Australian film follows the Palmer family who, in the wake of their daughter Alice’s accidental drowning during a picnic, struggle to cope with their overwhelming grief. In the weeks that follow, the family begin to encounter strange phenomena, from unexplained bruises to a ghostly apparition appearing in photographs, spurring Alice’s brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe) towards setting up video cameras in hopes of capturing his departed sister on film.
Sure, from the outset, it sounds like the set-up for a Paranormal Activity rehash, but writer/director Joel Anderson is less concerned with primal, overt scares and more with exploring the way in which a family copes with trauma. While the ‘found footage’ approach to faux-documentary horror is increasingly popular with film-makers with a desire to creep the newly-soiled underpants off movie audiences over the past decade, less directors are eager to adopt the traditional documentary format. With the standard documentary structure of candid and news footage proving less conducive to outright scares, Anderson wisely uses it to craft a slow, meditative, often unsettling exploration of a family coping with a tragic loss and the ensuing revelation of long-hidden secrets kept by the deceased.
As Alice’s father Russell (David Pledger) buries himself in work and her mother June (Rosie Traynor) turns to radio call-in psychic Ray Kemeny for solace, Mathew clings to the hope that his sister’s presence is still in the house, while interviews with friends and neighbours slowly unearth new and scandalous information about her. It’s unfortunate that these potentially shocking human closet secrets feel as sordid and chilling as a slow day on Wisteria Lane in comparison to the suggestion of more supernatural themes at play, and as a result, many of the twists and turns fall somewhat flat, feeling more daytime soap-like than intended. Thankfully though, that’s not all Anderson has up his sleeve as he quietly and creepily screws with your expectations, and while the nature of the film’s dark suburban underbelly plotlines fall limp, the human drama and the larger focus of the plot never does, with Traynor and Pledger deftly handing the act of naturally portraying “real” people, rather than rehearsed, acted characters.
Sitting down to watch Lake Mungo expecting an outright horror film, though understandable considering it’s been marketed as such, would be unwise. More a quiet, emotional drama with strong supernatural undertones than anything akin to The Blair Witch Project, Anderson’s film certainly requires a patient viewer to appreciate it, but is nonetheless effortlessly rewarding for its restraint. And while the few overt shocks are indeed immensely effective, it’s the subtle complexities of the eerily dreamlike final reel that linger on the mind long after the credits roll, unsettling the viewer with its intelligently structured narrative and marking writer/director Joel Anderson as a talent to watch in coming years.
On the DVD:
Unfortunately, After Dark have neglected to include any extras on the DVD, which is unfortunate considering Lake Mungo’s domestic Australian disc came with a commentary and deleted scenes. Still, a barebones release is perhaps better than none at all, and certainly preferable than being shelved in favour of the dreaded unnecessary remake that studio goons mulled over for a while…
Lake Mungo is available on US Region 1 DVD now.