For some reason I spent years getting this movie confused with Lake Placid, so I kept wondering when the killer alligator would show up. No such luck, this is a ghost story, through and through.
Lake Mungo is a mockumentary, though I have some trouble with that term. The term ‘mockumentary’ has always made me think of comedies, such as This is Spinal Tap or Zelig. However, Lake Mungo is a supernatural horror movie, and it is presented as a straightforward documentary with all the twists, turns, and roundabouts one might find in your average episode of Dateline. As a result, I don’t consider it a found footage film. Those generally imply that the footage was recovered later and possibly edited into some level of coherency. That isn’t what this is. This is interviews interspliced with still photography, family films, cell phone video, and so forth. The Blair Witch Project it ain’t, nor does it need to be.
The Palmer family, a typical middle class household in small town Australia, is rocked by the sudden and tragic drowning of their daughter, 16-year-old Alice. The family eventually comes to believe it is being haunted by her ghost, but as events continue, they learn that some supposed footage of her is fake, that they are working with a psychic who is withholding a crucial piece of evidence, and that their daughter had a secret double-life that almost no one was aware of. The documentary follows a thread through these events and discoveries, eventually resulting in the family visiting the titular Lake Mungo, where Alice had visited on a school trip some time before, and confronting the crucial event that may have ultimately led to her death, possibly by suicide. As for the ghost…well…
The mocking of documentary filmmaking here is that the story feels believable, in that the narrative is constructed in such a way as to make you find the realism. The sometimes painful interviews, the defensiveness of various actions, the discomfort that some people have in front of the cameras, the timeline that evolves and becomes more complicated…it fits the model of a true crime show that would run in prime time television. About the only thing missing is Lester Holt doing an introduction at the beginning of the film. Only this one happens to be an entirely fake ghost story, and that is what makes it great. It’s a fake ghost story with enough of a real world, secretive edge, it’s just salacious enough, that it’s believable. The actors all appear to be genuine, and that’s what holds it together. When you add in the disorientation of the variety of film qualities, the eerie soundtrack, and the editor’s willingness to hover on specific images in the way that your typical true crime show likes to do, well, you have a recipe for success.
Look, at times it’s rough watching; even if the events are false, there is enough reality at times that will make you feel sick to your stomach, and the “ghost” footage is portrayed as hauntingly creepy, even when later that footage is exposed as fake and the interviewees explain how it was faked or how something is misconstrued accidentally and why. But the camera can also misdirect, and during the end credits, we find just how much misdirection the audience is experiencing. It almost made me want to go back and rewatch the whole film, just to see what little hidden details I had missed. Adding to this are a few events which do remain unexplained, just enough to make things interesting.
I believe this is why I see Lake Mungo often hailed as a hidden gem of horror cinema from its decade. Places like Dread Central and Bloody Disgusting rave about it. However, I suspect that because it’s associated with the found footage dumping ground that so often translates to cheap and hokey, it’s likely getting ignored. It shouldn’t be. It should be held up as a fantastic horror film, perhaps one that could sit firmly alongside the heavyweights of the 2000s. Don’t be driven away by the strange and inventive nature of the story’s presentation, because that is what makes things worthwhile and interesting.