Australian chiller Lake Mungo does not operate under the normal strictures of what would be considered a horror movie these days, but it does provide ninety minutes of dread and foreboding. In fact, in its own way it's much more frightening than most of the schlock fests regularly served up in that genre.
Shot entirely in a faux documentary style, with archival footage, news video, home movies and individual interviews intermixed, the story revolves around the drowning death of sixteen year old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) while on a family swimming outing, and the ramifications and revelations that result from her family trying to sort out who she really was. Alice's parents June and Russell (Rosie Traynor and David Pledger) and her brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe) all deal with the drowning death in different ways. June has nightmares and wanders through their small town of Ararat at night to avoid sleeping. Russell throws himself into his work. Matthew finds a passion for photography.
Before too long, the family starts to hear strange noises in the house, Russell sees Alice's ghost, and her image begins to show up in Matthew's photos and home videos. It even appears that an unconnected person catches an image of Alice at the reservoir in which she drowned while filming a video. June becomes distraught and seeks help from psychic Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell). As the family begins to dig into Alice's life, they make some unpleasant discoveries that force them to reassess how she lived her life. Their investigations lead them inexorably to a trip she had taken with some school friends to the eponymous Lake Mungo. Something happened there that affected her deeply, but what was it?
If the above description makes the film seem pedestrian or derivative, that's a false impression. Lake Mungo has some superficial similarity to other recent films such as Paranormal Activity or Romero's Diary of the Dead, but it is much more subtle and layered than either of these films. In fact, it is much more a throwback to the pulp horror stories of yesteryear, such as Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu or Bram Stoker's even earlier Dracula that weave the story after the fact with journal entries, newspaper clippings and personal letters. Lake Mungo does not function as a traditional narrative, and thus is devoid of such horror film tropes as jump scares and gore.
As a result, it moves at a leisurely pace and works more by developing and maintaining a quiet sense of uneasiness and fear. The blurry, half seen images of Alice that pop up work so well because they are never seen full on, are always open to interpretation. Most of the pictures and videos are shown multiple times, allowing the viewer (often prompted by the filmmakers) to see something more, and to constantly be looking for more.
The few effects in the film are all low key and subtle, and work all the better because of this. They are given more impact via the tremendously effective performances that writer / director Joel Anderson is able to elicit from his actors. There is not a single false note from anyone for the duration of the film. Rosie Traynor as June is particularly good, and is able to artlessly portray the grieving and confused mother with singular passion. The film is constructed in such a way that it periodically subverts the viewer's idea of what it is about and where it is going, constantly playing with the question of whether Alice's appearances are real or not, delusions or hauntings or fakes. This unsettling only serves to make the film more impactful.
Joel Anderson succeeds in making a different kind of horror film. Lake Mungo is focused, well performed, confident and, most importantly, scary. It has a subtle effect, the kind of fright that makes it just a little harder to get to sleep after watching it. This one is highly recommended.