Equal parts drama, mystery and horror potboiler, Lake Mungo is a mockumentary styled film about the Palmer family, who is struck by tragedy, when daughter Alice drowns on a family vacation and the subsequent supernatural fallout.
The story unfolds through a series of interviews with family, Alice’s friends and even a psychic the family calls in when it becomes clear that something paranormal is happening in their home. Along with video footage from a variety of sources including handycams, a phone camera the film also presents some very unsettling photographs. All of these elements come together to paint a portrait of grief stricken family, a girl who was perhaps not exactly what she seemed and tell a damn good–if a bit melancholy–ghost story.
Presumed dead, Alice is soon discovered to have drowned, and the grieving family is left to move on however, it’s not that simple. Soon after her body is found evidence of a haunting begins to manifest in the family home. Noises, visions of an apparition and finally photographic evidence all point to a restless spirit.
While at first glance the plot is fairly straightforward, like any good true crime documentary nothing is as simple as it seems on its surface. The film does an excellent job of throwing a number unexpected curve balls the audience’s way, all leading up to a final reveal that creeps under your skin and is, in a word, haunting.
The effectiveness of the tale comes down to the skillful execution of all involved, from writer/director Joel Anderson, to the sound editing that deftly uses both soundtrack and eerie white noise that subtly nudges you toward the edge of your seat throughout its running time. Most importantly, the actors (who improvised most of their lines) skillfully portray grieving friends and family, with equal parts frankness and poignancy. It’s this above all else that allows the audience to buy into the story and get wrapped up in the mystery. This is due in part to the cast’s virtually unknown status (at least here in North America) as well as their impressive acting chops, and it allows us to suspend our disbelief. (Contrary to the similar effort made by 2009’s The Fourth Kind that missed on both counts.)
Lake Mungo could just as easily be classified as a drama with supernatural elements (especially by genre fans with more hard core tastes) particularly when judged for its lack of gore and jump scares (because you can never have enough of those *sarcasm*). However, by the time the credits roll the unrelenting atmosphere and otherworldly visuals gradually foster a growing sense of unease which allows for the final reveal to pay off in a way that only a scare earned by slowly and meticulously ratcheting up the tension can.
While I seem to be universally praising the film, it is not without flaws. In the final act there is a bit of a metaphysical connection made between two characters, in an effort to tie up the final loose strings and bring the story full circle, that seems a bit tacked on and out of place in a story that is at its best when left somewhat ambiguous. There are also a few brief moments when the supporting interviewees (and Alice herself) struggle a bit, not so much so as to pull you out of the film but when placed side by side with the stronger performances of the Palmer family stand out as a weaker part in a generally well-acted film.
Despite a few minor gripes the film is surprising DVD gem. Lake Mungo will no doubt leave gore hounds and those looking for intense, overt scares cold. But for fans of atmospheric slow burning ghost stories punctuated with eerie visuals, Lake Mungo is a haunting winner.