The Film: Lake Mungo (2008)

The Principles: Joel Anderson (Writer/Director).  David Pledger, Rosie Traynor, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, Steve Jodrell.

The Premise: When their daughter Alice (Zucker) tragically drowns, Russel and June Palmer (Pledger and Traynor), along with their son Mathew (Sharpe) try to deal with the grief.

Well, the grief and the ghostly apparition of their deceased loved one popping up all over the place.

Is It Good: Absolutely.  The biggest thing here is that it’s a mockumentary, so that brings with it its own set of not only obstacles but open doors.  The problem with documentaries is that you HAVE to have a compelling story and you HAVE to have the information and visuals to back it up.  If you only have part of that (or none of it at all), then your film’s gonna fall apart.  You might be able to coast for a bit on engaging people and some compelling locations and an interesting hook, but you have to have the follow-through or you got no punch.

This, of course, is the benefit to the mockumentary – you just make it up!  You write your own compelling story and fabricate your own information and visuals and – provided you don’t overdo it – voila!  Throw in a hook and an engaging timeline and you got everything you need.

Except people.

People, of course, are the biggest obstacle in any mockumentary, simply because you have to be able to get people to act like they’re not acting.  Which, in those terms, sounds simple enough, but because of the heightened sense of reality from the whole documentary-style of filmmaking and the audience’s tendency to NOT suspend disbelief when they start watching a documentary (mock or otherwise), even the slightest little waver is gonna stick the hell out.  Real people in a real documentary have a real story to tell and they really want to tell it.  And that’s not something that’s easy to recreate.

SO, what movie was…oh yeah – Lake Mungo.   The setup to the documentary here is that this family has lost their daughter/sister and over time her ghost starts showing up; in pictures, in videos, in front of their faces – she’s essentially haunting their house.  And as such, it takes on the tone of a “ghost story documentary,” a la Paranormal Activity (but not really), but while that’s what you expect going in (and find yourself waiting for), it becomes a whole different something altogether.  Yeah, there’s the ghost story aspect of it, but somewhere around the middle the ghost story becomes a gateway for this almost really poignant look at grief and how people deal with it.  The ghost itself becomes a metaphor for her lingering memory and this family’s inability to cope with losing her – and it’s a theme that’s supported by certain things the family says and even a big plot point that comes somewhere in the middle.  And that’s all well and fine, if not a little jarring.  What’s great about this little detour though, is that it leaves you unprepared for when it comes back full circle and turns into a really bitchin’ ghost story again, but – because of the detour you just took – there’s an extra bit of weight and substance to it all.

And I know, none of that made a lick of sense, but watching this thing unfold was a bit of an experience and I don’t wanna rob anybody of that with spoilers.

Is It Worth A Look: Definitely!  I mentioned earlier how easy it is to lose control of a mockumentary and Joel Anderson here does a stellar job of keeping everything on the rails.  And what’s even more impressive than the level of realism and sincerity everybody maintained in their interviews is the quality of the b-roll and supplemental footage he was able to work into it.  Stuff that was staged and shot on cell phones – and not a fancy-pants iPhone, but those old Nokia phones.  Photographs that were doctored beautifully.  Stock footage of this family and their life before the tragedy.  The devil is in the details, as they say, and Anderson had a grip on the tiniest one.  The level of planning and prep work that went into this is amazing on its own, but when you consider the execution (which wasn’t flawless and there were indeed tiny little wobbles and moments here and there that pulled me out of the film), it gets to where it almost feels like a tiny triumph.

But again – it’s a ghost story.  And when you’re talking ghost stories nothing else matters until that one question gets answered:  “is it scary?”  The best answer I can give is “Maybe?”  It really depends on what your definition of “scary” is.  If scary is things jumping out of the dark with screeching sound cues then nosir, this isn’t going to scare you.  If scary is grue and blood and violence and visceral destruction then nope – it‘s not for you.  But, if scary is dread?  If scary is that feeling on the back of your neck when tension is ratcheted up to unbearable levels simply because of what you THINK you see?  Because of what it’s not showing you?  Then Jesus H. Macy it’s fucking terrifying.  And then once you get used to fear being in the shadows and not necessarily something you can pinpoint, it throws some fucked up shit in your face and you find yourself thinking that once it’s over you’re going to have to go to bed watching Spongebob or something.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Random Anecdotes: I don‘t really have anything here.  Some of the editing story-wise was a little whacked and Anderson threw in some stuff that seemed a bit gratuitous and even though he tried to write it off as serving the character a bit more, in the end it kind of ended up being a sleight of hand to distract you from the real crux of the story.  Like I said earlier – it certainly wasn‘t flawless.  Also, the sound design is phenomenal.  All the lights turned off and the surround turned way up – holy cats I was creeped the creep out.  Also, this film almost singlehandedly renewed my faith/interest in the After Dark brand, as I had written them off completely what with their awful (well, the ones I’ve seen anyway) 8 Films to Die For series.

Cinematc Soulmates: Cropsey.  The Blair Witch Project.  Dear Zachary.