Friday, January 29, 2016

Trailer Park :: Why Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore :: Joel Anderson's Eerily Effective Lake Mungo (2008)

In the small city of Ararat, Australia, the Palmer family, father Russell (Pledger), mother June (Traynor), and son Matthew (Sharpe), several months after the fact, are still reeling from the accidental drowning death of daughter Alice (Zucker), made worse by numerous nocturnal visits and sightings of the girl caught on film after she died. With this evidence, thinking she might still be alive, the mother, lost in a spiral of denial, pushes to have Alice’s body exhumed to settle if it was really her body recovered from the lake. When the DNA tests prove positive, the only other explanation for the photos and video, then, has to be supernatural, causing the Palmers to turn to a renowned medium (Jodrell) for some answers to these ghostly phenomenon, which also draws the attention of a documentary film crew; and together, through several harrowing twist and turns, this slick after-action report unearths long buried family secrets and skeletons as the harrowing (and unsettling) truth about Alice finally comes out… 

  Video courtesy of Lake Mungo.

Though purported as such, Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008) really isn’t a found footage fright flick in the vein of Paranormal Activity (2007) or The Blair Witch Project (1999) – to its betterment, as far as I’m concerned. 

No, despite the horribly misleading promotional art for its DVD release and being lumped into Lionsgate’s annual, and more visceral, 8 Films to Die For After Dark Horrorfest line-up, what we have here is film presented as a faux news documentary about a girl who tragically drowned and her family’s struggle through the grieving process that is hamstrung by an apparent haunting by the deceased, made manifest by spectral visitations and apparitions of the girl showing up on several photos and videos of family, friends and complete strangers.

Thus, Lake Mungo is a haunting film about haunting things. And it’s not what you think or were led to believe as the film unfolds, rather brilliantly, unveiling all kinds of details and secrets that no one knew about through bread-crumbs both real and unreal (-- most notably unraveling a very elaborate hoax and a skeevy sex-tape involving the underage victim and some scurvo neighbors she was babysitting for). 

Writer and director Anderson wrote the film in 2005, penning something that could be shot on a lower budget when he couldn’t raise enough funds for another script with a larger budget demand. (The majority of the film was eventually funded by a grant from the Australian government.) According to Anderson, he did not set out to make a supernatural thriller but rather an exploration of grief and how technology is used to track memories, and how these recorded memories mediate a lot of our experiences. For the cast, Anderson wanted a group of unknowns to maintain the documentary illusion. And to add another layer of verisimilitude, all of the dialogue was improvised to follow the outline of the story, with Anderson serving as the off-screen interviewer during the testimonials.

The cast is uniformly solid and plugged into a well-layered pastiche of film, (fake) news footage, video, and photo montage that leaves the audience struggling to remember that they’re actually just watching a movie. I’m telling ya, Lake Mungo gave me a HUGE case of the drizzles as these elements played out. But fair warning; this film is not about spring-loaded things jumping out at you or CGI creepy-crawlies but startling images coming into focus in the background or the opposite corners from where you’re supposed to be looking; and the one and only real “BOOGA-BOOGA!” moment in the whole film, when we see the footage on Alice’s recovered camera, is startling effective. And be sure to stick through the closing credits as the “filmmakers” go through some of the footage one last time to show you what we missed.

Less about a haunting and spectral revenge from beyond the grave, then, and more about dire premonitions coming full circle and a tragedy that no one saw coming except, apparently, for the victim, Lake Mungo isn’t very scary but it is very creepy; very, very creepy; and a very slow creep at that. And when the whole thing comes full circle, in the end, you might just find something in your eye.

Lake Mungo (2008) Mungo Productions :: Screen Australia :: SBS Independent :: After Dark Films / EP: William Coleman, Gilbert George, Robert George / P: Georgie Nevile, David Rapsey / AP: Joel Anderson, John Brawley / D: Joel Anderson / W: Joel Anderson / C: John Brawley / E: Bill Murphy / M: David Paterson / S: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, Steve Jodrell

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