Lake Mungo, an Australian film originally released in 2008, didn’t see a US release date until 2010 and with two appreciable strikes against it to boot. Firstly, its release was part of the After Dark “8 Films to Die For” horrorfest, a festival that had a spotty track record to say the least. Secondly, the marketing of the film made it seem to be a cheap knock off of another 2010 US release, “Insidious”. These two strikes have seemingly caused Lake Mungo to fall into the horror film oblivion, very rarely mentioned, let alone discussed. Thanks to Netflix streaming, though, today we aim to correct this.
Lake Mungo, written and directed by Joel Anderson, sets itself up as a documentary about a family dealing with the loss of their teen daughter and the events this loss leads to. Featuring first person interviews, news footage, and recreations of “actual events”, Lake Mungo is shot very much in that “Dateline” style of human drama unfolding before the viewing audience’s eyes. This familiarity of style leads to a certain feeling of relaxed intrigue that holds true through the first half of the film. During this first portion of the film Anderson spends more time on the familial dynamic and how they deal with the grief of losing a sister and daughter, than any pure paranormal horror. While some may find that this causes Lake Mungo to be too slow to work as an effective horror film, the truth is it makes those horror elements all the more powerful.
There are horror films that depend on the jump scare, the moments of fear fueled at a complete chemical and visceral level. The story in these are secondary to the experience of horror. Then there are films like Lake Mungo, who depend on relationships on screen and the events that unfold because of them to fuel the horror. This may lead to less “heart-pounding” moments, but it does raise the tension to a palpable level that tends to affect the viewer long after they walk away from the film. The horror elements of Lake Mungo are not especially novel. On a visual level, the same elements have appeared in ghost stories for decades, if not centuries. Lake Mungo itself nods to this in its opening sequence which features “ghost photography” from the Victorian period. Anderson understands that the horror and fear that Lake Mungo produces comes from a much more sinister place than the “jump scare”.
That place is our relationships. The way in which we interact with each other affects and shapes our lives, and the lives we leave behind in death. For a large portion of the film, what haunts the characters in Lake Mungo is their own grief and guilt. This leads to actions that are irrational and borderline destructive. Being a horror film, though, Lake Mungo does eventually lead to a more traditional paranormal story. Even this portion of the film is fueled by the interfamilial relationships, or the lack of them, and feels much more sorrowful than a simple “haunting” film.
This is not to take away from those “haunting” elements. Lake Mungo elicited more literal goose-bump moments than possibly any other film of it’s ilk. Perhaps it was the time we spent with the family and the consequential sympathy for them that led to the ultimate effectiveness of the paranormal scenes. Perhaps I’m a total sissy when it comes to grainy ghost images. In either scenario Lake Mungo is a powerfully creepy film that tackles death, grief, and familial relationships. Despite it’s quick descent into the marketing induced horror oblivion, Lake Mungo should be revisited and appreciated. Also, stay through the end credits for some particularly goose-bump inducing footage.