Dread / The Final / The Graves / The Hidden / Kill Theory
Mungo / The Reeds / Zombies of Mass Destruction


STUDIO: After Dark Films/Lionsgate

MSRP: $16.49


RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes


• Producer’s Trailer

The Pitch

Ringu Down Under

The Humans

Starring: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, Steve Jodrell
Director of Photography: John Brawley
Written and Directed by Joel Anderson

The Nutshell

After the mysterious drowning of Alice Palmer, her surviving family begins to experience bizarre and unexplained phenomena in their home that leads them to believe that maybe Alice has come back from the dead.  When other townspeople independently have their own similar experiences, the Palmers enlist the help of a controversial psychic who helps them uncover Alice’s double life that may have had a hand in her untimely demise. 

Guys, I know you don’t have much money, but your special effects budget has got
to allow for more than your eight-year-old daughter’s drawing of a ghost. I don’t know how they
do things in Australia, but Americans aren’t going to buy this.

The Lowdown

As soon as the film started, I sighed loudly
and thought to myself: “Ugh, here we go: another one of these movies.”  By “one of these movies” I
mean faux-documentary-style narratives that cobble together various videos and
pictures of ghosts aimed at creating a sense of reality that makes the
paper-thin and wholly unoriginal proceedings scary.  Surprisingly enough, this one didn’t suck.  In fact, it’s quite good.

But, before we go any further, let’s just get this out there
up front so that everyone’s on the same page and knows what to expect going
forward: Lake Mungo is not a horror film. 
Luckily, though, Lake Mungo manages to rise above the limitations of its
niche genre to be quite an effective supernatural chiller.

I say “chiller” because populating it
with chills rather than jumps, writer/director Joel Anderson displays maturity
and a quality lacking in most horror filmmakers: patience.  And not “patience” as in the
normal boring, plodding first act of a ghost story where the director
establishes a “creepy” atmosphere with cheap scares that amount to
nothing while the characters obliviously amble toward their inevitable
confrontation with some vengeful ghost who died accidentally but is still
pissed about their untimely demise and comes back to take it out on everyone
they can get their wet hands on. 
Anderson actually creates characters within his world (a novel concept), which
refreshingly happens to be that of the rarely seen small-town of Ararat, Australia. 

“Since Lake Mungo doesn’t really have a lake anymore and our main character drowns in a lake
even though it’s not Lake Mungo, you think we might want to change the title to, like,
Red Rock Down Under or something?”
“Are we there yet?”
“Shut up, Mom.”

Tonight’s ghost story revolves around the
Palmer family who recant the strange happenings that occurred after their
daughter Alice Palmer mysteriously drowned in a nearby dam.  (Not Lake Mungo, mind you. This is a
completely different lake.  And
actually, the bizarre and admittedly creepy happenings that take place in Lake
involve no body of water whatsoever.  It’s also not nearly as confusing as I’m making it so I’ll
just shut up now and you can continue watching the movie.)  Each family member deals with Alice’s
untimely death in their own way: Alice’s father, Russell, dives headfirst into
his work; Mathew, Alice’s brother, sticks mainly to himself and his photography;
while, June, Alice’s mother, struggles to accept the reality that her teenage
daughter was gone.  It’s at this
point that they start hearing noises coming from Alice’s room.  And Russell has a bizarre daydream
where he sees Alice.  And then, Mathew
finds a ghostly figure in one of his photographs of their backyard — the
figure looks just like Alice.

Much of the first 45 minutes of the film
continues on as you would expect for a ghost story like this.  Although, the moments that Anderson chooses to show us do more than simply set the tone and atmosphere for the film — they actually develop the characters.  Many horror films frame their gore and scares around the themes loss and death, but they do so with the most generic of methods of storytelling that we never really feel that pain, that heartache, that anguish that one truly goes through when dealing with the passing of a loved one.  Lake Mungo is no Ordinary People here, but it definitely hits those beats in a much more honest manner than other films of its ilk and makes you wonder why so little attention is paid to these narrative elements in other films — it’s not like it costs tons of money to write motivated characters and believable situations.  I suppose it’s easier to pay the sound editors to blast the soundtrack than it is to find talented writers and directors for these types of movies on a regular basis, which is a shame because when they work, they’re extremely enjoyable and effective.

Once the Palmers notice Alice’s apparition in some of Mathew’s random photos of their home and yard, they
place cameras in various places of their house hoping to capture more images of
the ghost.  Sure enough, they find
her again and again.  They end up
calling up a psychic to help them with their situation.  It definitely has ghost story
paint-by-numbers written all over it, yet Anderson’s adept storytelling and refusal to bombard us with fake-out jumps and stock Halloween music on repeat kept me engrossed.
Now, believe me: I am reluctant to admit this since I still have a serious issue with the
general concept of this film — it even shows a “this is the record of those
events” title at the beginning implying that this actually happened, even though not a single person believes that line anymore so
why even bother. Regardless, Anderson managed to completely suck me
into the story because he actually had a good story to
tell, and told it well.  That’s not to say that Lake
reinvents the genre or anything — like I said, this isn’t Oscar-bait (thankfully). 
But it is fresh, bringing some new ideas to the table in a way that leaves
them rattling around in your brain after, and it gives us characters we actually
care about, which is way more than can be said for the snot-dripping folks in
The Blair Witch Project or the annoying couple in Paranormal Activity — the
latter of which I thought was effective in opting for more creepiness than
cheap scares, (until the end of course) but how many times could that idiot boyfriend pull the machismo “I got this” mentality on wrangling a ghost?

Jenny’s Beetlejuice costume won every Halloween costume contest she entered.
Unfortunately, she won Most Un-alive Contestant, as well.

I think Lake Mungo is a better movie than
both of its genre predecessors.  Anderson’s story progresses
competently if rather predictably until the mid-point, when those creepy images caught on home video pay off to create a bona fide
mystery.  And I don’t mean mystery
in terms of the obvious question these movies pose: “How do I stop this
ghost from making me all kinds of terrified?”  Rather, Anderson’s characters have their own motivations and
reveals that progress the story through its beats, during which more
supernatural events occur organically instead of the narrative simply being a
loose framework of series of escalating interactions with the ghosts until the camera cuts out
shockingly at the end.  And Anderson
could’ve gone down that road, easily. 
There were plenty of moments ripe for a shrieking aural explosion on the
soundtrack making you jolt in your seat just to scam you into being
frightened.  But, he didn’t take
them.  Only near the end was there
even a serious blip on the soundtrack and it wasn’t cheap: it was earned.

Anderson took this same approach to all aspects
of the filmmaking: the soundtrack, the acting, and the editing. For one, there was actual acting going
on here.  It wasn’t just non-actors
playing “themselves” on screen and pretending to be terrified by shadows on the wall.  In fact, I can’t recall there being a single on-screen
scream in the entire film.  By
having real actors portraying written characters rather than amateurs
ad-libbing from an outline instead of a script, Anderson crafts a confident
film instead of a gimmick.  And, I
can’t tell you how refreshing it was to not watch a jittery hand-held camera
for once and to be able to allow the slow, deliberate yet compelling pace – of
both the edits and the length of the shots themselves – let me watch the story
unfold rather than be beaten over the head and numbed by it.  I especially loved a shot in Alice’s bedroom where the light
slowly skulks out of the room, leaving only the light from the late-evening sky
shining through the window to illuminate the space.  It was genuinely creepy, not needing any jumps, scares, or
loud shrills from the speakers.

Perhaps Australian audiences prefer their
horror more cerebral than visceral than we do here in the States. Or maybe Anderson simply knows there’s
a difference between making a horror film and making a movie that happens to
fall into the horror genre.  Like
anything else, when following the formula to a tee, it gets stale and
soulless.  Many cheap horror movies
follow similar patterns as bad TV sitcoms, substituting the
setup/joke/bigger joke formula for the setup/fake scare/real scare one.  It can be quite successful — I mean,
people must go for it if Two and a Half Men is the number one sitcom on
TV.  It just doesn’t necessarily make for a
quality product.  I’m happy to say that Lake Mungo is not
sitcom caliber.

Henry Hill’s kids followed in his footsteps, finding themselves in the witness protection program
after getting caught running drugs and racketeering at Dubuque Junior High.

That being said, I bet Charlie Sheen makes more
before the first commercial break than Anderson and his crew had to make this
feature — you just don’t structure your film as a faux-documentary unless you
have an extremely low budget; this style of film lends itself to
cheap cameras and poor lighting.  You can usually expect piss-poor acting thrown into that mix, too, since these
are supposed to be just regular people with cameras.  However despite having its
share of amateur video footage, Anderson and his DP John Brawley went above and
beyond anything else I’ve seen in this genre, capturing gorgeous vistas of the
hilly Australian countryside with its spacious skies, asymmetric trees, and odd
rock formation, and they made the
glorious decision of recording all of the “found” footage (except for
some camera phone footage) on tripods, which let them actually compose the
shots.  I particularly loved the
numerous time-lapse landscape shots taken during magic hour.  (What can I say?  They just do it for me.)  Much of this was accomplished by making the wise choice of framing the movie as an
after-the-fact documentary, freeing up the filmmakers to only use the
“found” footage when it fit the story, not vice versa.

All lauding aside, for some viewers Lake Mungo
might still hover around the scare level of the best Unsolved Mysteries
episode, which is high praise indeed if you were eight years old in the late
‘80s like me.  That show kept me up
countless nights and I think the terrified child that lives inside me still
gets the goosebumps when I’m shown a photograph of a family smiling, only to
zoom in and see the blurry face of a ghost – what else could it be? – lurking in
the background unbeknownst to everyone else.  If you’re not like me and you prefer your scares
in-your-face with bodies hacked to bits, then you will be extremely
disappointed here.  Don’t get
me wrong: I dig those movies, too, but almost any movie can make you jump out of your seat.  Sometimes I just want to savor that
chill as it creeps over my shoulders and down my back and makes me shiver as shadows in the corners of my room take on sinister shapes.  And for that, Lake Mungo did not

The Package

A nice-enough widescreen transfer, a producer’s trailer, English and Spanish subtitles, and 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio.  So, bare bones.

out of 10

I just love landscape shots at dusk.  That’s all.  No jokes here.
(Or above, really. Damnit.)