Friday, April 9, 2010

Paranormal ActSwimmity

Like many modern films with any morsels fit for digestion by the horror community, Lake Mungo is being marketed as a terrifying ghost story that makes The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and The Haunting look like Casper Meets The Wiggles. The problem with that description is not that the film isn’t scary, but that Lake Mungo is of a hybrid, undefinable genre more akin to something like Jacob’s Ladder or Bug.
NOTE: Because this is a brand new release making its way through DVD and the After Dark Horrorfest, I’m instituting a self-no-spoiler policy for this review. All plot reveals and sssssecretsssss will, however, be fair game for the comments section so expect full divulgences after the jump. Until then, we'll keep it clean and pure.

You know the type.

Quick Plot: 16 year old Alice disappears while swimming with her family in suburban Australia. Months later, her seaweed-soaked body is found, prompting her family to deal with their grief in personal ways. Dad has nightmares but trudges on to work. Mom begins wandering town like a lost puppy late in the night. And brother Matty throws himself into investigating the strange appearances Alice may or may not be making in witching hour videos and backyard photography.

There’s a good chance that nothing in that plot synopsis whetted your appetite for this film. In terms of premise, Lake Mungo is a pretty plain tale inspired more by Sightings than The Sixth Sense. In no way, however, is it that simple.
Filmed in documentary style, Lake Mungo avoids the found footage format trend that makes viewers queasy. While some critics have complained that such a choice robs us of most dramatic payoff, I found the honest, straightforward narrative completely worked to make the story feel like a moving photo album missing key pages. Something has happened to this family, and their honest, baffled, and lost faces tell a sad and haunting tale.

There are dabblings with psychics and scandals, but Lake Mungo never quite goes where you expect. Critics who often complain about forced finales should be pleased with how organic Lake Mungo proves to be. There are plenty of chills generated from the more ghostly leanings, but ultimately, this is more a film about grief than gotcha! moments of shrieks.
High Points
The performances--particularly Rosie Traynor as June and David Pledger as Russell--a are believable for a documentary and layered enough to keep you intrigued. June’s introversion gives birth to a different kind of grief from Russell’s stoic false closure. Director Joel Anderson lets their pain speak for itself with no swelling moments of tears or screams, and as a result, the loss cuts even more deeply.
I was often reminded of another teenage girl disappears into Australian wilderness film, Picnic At Hanging Rock. Whether this was a direct inspiration or not, fans of Peter Weir’s 1975 ethereal genre-defying film may find some of Alice’s past comments about her future to be equally eerie.

Low Points
The main way Lake Mungo draws your attention to something amiss is to show video footage, then zoom in on the phenomena. While it’s still creepy and I’m thankful to have seen all the paranormal activity, I would rather have had a little more added mystery with more moments of did-I-see-that?
Lessons Failed
In order to avoid any spoilers, I will forego this section. That’s how much I love you all. I’m actually putting my education on hold.

I’d hate to repeat myself so soon after And Soon the Darkness, but like that slow burning 1970 thriller, Lake Mungo is a polarizing goosebumps giver or dull dud. Opinions will vary pretty sharply due to the creeping pacing and documentary style. If you have the slightest appreciate for suspenseful and ambiguous films that don’t really fit a specific genre, then rent Lake Mungo quickly and judge for yourself before the inevitable Paranormal Activity love/hate hype endangers your own viewing experience. I genuinely felt my heart beat a little faster during some of Lake Mungo and a day later as I think back, it feels even more haunting a story. While I’m generally not easy to scare (although my barely readable review of Magic might prove otherwise), the combination of striking imagery plus an utterly everday family living with tragedy truly struck some sort of nerve. Hopefully, it does for you as well. 

And remember, I've declared the COMMENTS section to be a spoil happy zone so hold your nose and proceed at your own risk.


  1. Just got this on In Demand and will be checking out soon. This is the only film in this year's installment of the 8 Movies to Die For series that has me really intrigued.

  2. I described this movie back when I saw it in November with one perfect word; Resonating. The fear is so deep and chilling and it truly does stay with you long after viewing. It was one of the few movies that had me question whether I could last throughout the whole film without turning it off and taking a cookies and milk breather.

    My only problem was how the film was marketed. That poster in particular is incredibly bothersome, and you can tell they definitely tried to cash in on a paranormal type thing- or even make it seem like more of a thriller ghost story. No one is wet and screaming in pain in this movie!! Grrrr!!! That poster ruins a lot of what makes this movie amazing. It either made people not want to see it based on lameness or if people did see it a lot of them were angered because the film was nothing at all like their expectations.

  3. I thoroughly agree with that description Andre. I was also extremely tense during much of Lake Mungo and couldn't stop thinking about it the next day.

    And the marketing was, not surprisingly, dreadfully misdirected. It's funny because I just launched into a tirade about poor marketing while trying to defend Josie and the Pussycats at work as being a much smarter and more satirical film than its teenybopping previews led audiences to believe. Lake Mungo doesn't really fit any genre, so the marketing was bound to simply target the easiest buyers. It's a shame because this simply isn't a horror movie. It's chilling, terrifying, and plays with the supernatural, but put it in the AfterDark lineup, splash blood that never appears in the film on the poster art, and just watch filmgoers come away complaining about a 'dull' movie. Grr indeed!

  4. I found it too slow. I mean...almost NOTHING happens in this film.

    Sure, you get a mildly interesting reveal around the 40 minute mark, but that's a LONG time...

    It's well done, but on the whole kinda boring. Did you see someone on imdb in their review says, "Lake Bunghole it should have been called".

    Made me laugh, but I'm incredibly childish.

  5. I completely understand anybody not liking this film, same for And Soon the Darkness or Paranormal Activity. True, nothing really happens, but some of that video footage had me shaking which just never happens to me anymore. Maybe I am, deep down, a 16 year old sexually promiscuous Australian girl with premonitions of death.

  6. I finally saw this film after reading your recommendation. It's weird that I recall no promos for this film in australia when it was released. I really enjoyed it, I noticed some Paranormal Activity comparisions but thought this was done much better and I agree it doesn't really fit well into any genre.

  7. Weird Aimee, I imagined it was a bigger hit in Australia just cause. It never got a theatrical release here (I think it was actually released through the 8 Films to Die For series). Word is they're doing an American remake because we silly Yanks can't understand your language. Sigh.

    This is *kind of* in the same realm as Paranormal Activity, but I just find Lake Mungo to be something, as you say, so genre-defying. It's far more about the grief of the family than getting a good scare, and most of the terror comes from a really different place. Still not sure that I can think of another film to compare it to. Glad you dug it!

  8. We tend to shun our own films here sadly as we do some good ones! I did shudder a bit at the mention of an american remake as it seems so unnessary. Like watching a dubbed Mad Max film, Mel was born in America! Anywho thanks for alerting me to it, my dad has also watched it, it was apparently played on one of our government funded TV channels (ie one no one watches).

  9. That's sad! Australia has such an odd and interesting film catalog, though so much of it is kind of invaded by Brits using the landscape or American milking the tax break!