Somebody needs to set the record straight about Lake Mungo, because if you can't understand and appreciate this movie, you can't really understand or appreciate what is behind horror. I have read many reviews blasting this albeit oddly-titled film, and I find the reviews as vapid and predictable as the horror movies many of the reviewers identify as unrivaled. I get it, I get it, I'M THE ONE who said that one gem is another person's garbage, but I have to draw the line somewhere, and here it is. Here is my line in the sand:
Total Score = 25/30
W = 9
T = 8
F = 8
W = 9
T = 8
F = 8
It is fair to say that different things scare different people, and so I'm not going to be too judgmental about what has been written about this film...other than conceding that most of what has been written about this film is crap. The misconception lies in the assumption that horror is solely about gore or sticking to some overplayed subject matter deemed 'cult' or otherwise. If you don't run out of the packed theater screaming, it can still be horror. If you don't see sawed-off limbs, projectile blood vomit, or zombies, it can still be horror! It it's not directed by Romero, Craven, Cronenberg, or Fulci, (STARTLE!) it can still be horror!!
I found this movie leagues more terrifying and disturbing than culty films like Dawn of the Dead or Halloween because real horror is not so much about zombies in shopping malls or the guy with the knife in the closet than it is about losing the ones we love. The former images are flights of fancy, of imagination games we play with ourselves because the real world gets boring. The latter is the terrifying reality that we all must face at several points in our lives. The bright side of zombie shopping malls and masked-slasher sequences is that they are so uncommon (or unreal), that movie tickets will fly to people who want to see something out of the ordinary. The bright side of playing up the horror that we experience in the real world is that if it's done right (or almost right in this case - note that it does not have a perfect score), it leaves you with an altered perspective on life and death. If watched from the perspective of giving the film a grain of salt for its imperfections, this is a beautiful vignette of family, death, superstition, and playing upon the greatest fears of anyone who has ever loved anyone else.
This Australian movie is filmed in the style of a shoddily-made documentary - something a relatively local film crew would create for public access TV or a low-budget indie film (which is kind of what the movie is at times). The style of filming is almost uncomfortable, as if the crew is still putting the pieces together while the story unravels. The plot traces the stories of the family members and friends surrounding the sudden and unexplained drowning of a 16 year old girl named Alice Palmer at Lake Mungo. The family delivers the account with a shaky matter-of-fact composure, not icy, but giving the impression of intending to stay calm in front of television cameras. It's difficult (especially being an American) watching this film, because we are so used to watching people spill their proverbial and occasionally literal guts on television. The rules of normal TV and everything we've (errrrrrrrr) seen on Oprah lead us to expect the mother to break down into hysterical sobs when she describes how she couldn't get out of the car to see the waterlogged body of her child. That the parents and the sibling of Alice Palmer hold it together for the interviews is in some ways more sad than if they had been blowing snot into tissues.
The family's story unravels into a deceiving tale of haunting events and images versus doubts of said events and images. Little things start happening like hallucinations and nightmares, strange bruises, fuzzy images on photographs - that give way to more twisted sides of the story. Many of the characters seem more shaken by Alice's unexplained death and the clandestine activities of her short life than they are convinced that anything supernatural happened. Alice's death reminded me of Jeff Buckley, who's eerie drowning in the Wolf River was supposedly 'predicted' by the musician himself. Alice's fears and her family, in recounting the momentary lapse between Alice being there and gone and all of the subsequent tragedies, are the primary foci of the film.
Now you have to trust me here: I'm not so cruel as to set you up for some movie where you're going to sit there for 2 hours and nothing at all scary happens except a glass falls off a table and some weird ominous music plays. I'm not that twisted or boring and that is definitely not the point of this review. The point is that some of the most terrifying horror moments lie not in what is seen but in the essential tenet of what you don't see. In this movie, you don't see a murderous girl crawl out of a television with hair over her face. You don't see a dude with a paper bag over his head cut his mother to pieces. You don't see a man with pins in his skull expostulate on the realms of hell. In this movie, hell is an empty bedroom.
But it had to be addressed (forewarned, if you will - to the special viewer who expects gore thrills chills and kills at every turn in every horror film) that the story is centered on the living more than it is on the dead, though that margin is not so wide as you fear it might be in this flick. Through the family's characters, there is a disquieting sense of isolation and abandonment, and the incredibly deep sadness that comes when each viewer of the film identifies this story with some aspect of their own lives and pieces of loneliness that everyone shares but cannot share together. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time reflecting upon a relative being in the morgue understands this feeling.
I think that if there is any message to this film it is that people, though inherently flawed and capable of despicable acts, are ultimately just creatures in search of love and company. Next to the family's shock and emptiness, the notion that this search for connection to our loved ones persists even after death is what shook me hard. Each of the characters is desperate for the comfort they cannot find in knowing that death puts a wall between us through which only a few shadowy and blurred impressions manage to escape. Every child's fear. Every parent's fear. Every sibling's fear. Every lover's fear. This is REAL horror, people.
One good reviewer that I read described this movie as something that creeps up on you, and I think that this is the most accurate statement I've read about this film so far including anything I've written about it. By the end of the film, I was lonely and scared and disturbed in a way that zombies on a roof with guns a-blazin' or witches committing sex rituals or the dark underlord rising up through a mason jar just somehow doesn't seem to grab me. Ultimately, the watcher has to decide whether they buy into what is happening in this family's home and in their community, or to see the whole story as a hopeful embellishment to disguise grief with attention seeking.
The movie does have its kinks. At times, it is almost too deliberately under-acted - the hidden emotion is subtle in most places but dull in others. Some of the plot devices are a bit hokey as well - there are places and events that don't quite flow with the rest of the story, and also little side stories that seem like an additional waste of five unnecessary minutes of the film, blurring the focus of the actual story. I linked the first title of this story to the film's wikipedia page, which describes the film as starring some random actress named Talia Zucker. I thought it was sad that it was a one sentence opener that was more focused on the weakest actor rather than the film itself. Ironically, Zucker (Alice) delivers the most unconvincing role of the lot; it's the family's grief and machinations that steal the show, not the lame-ish delivery of a teen girl's fears by Alice herself.
The supernatural components of the film are divided between the dark death of Alice Palmer, her reappearance in images and other respects around her house and to her relatives, and her predictions of her untimely end. I think that between these three blurred places, this movie takes the leap from just a plain psychological thriller to a supernatural horror/psychological thriller. The order of the film may seem chaotic in places, and this is definitely true of some parts where you question why the director even included five minutes of grandma-ranting or co-worker observations - BUT, next to other attempts at 'realistic' supernatural horror (aka Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity), this piece is carefully and lovingly put together, leading up to a final few moments that I had trouble forgetting.
Needless to say after all this, it's a movie that is definitely worth seeing, if only for the emotional rollercoaster that it takes the thoughtful watcher on. It is not your drunken laugh-at-the-fake-blood movie any more than Trainspotting is a lighthearted romantic comedy. For many people I can see that this might be a movie that hits too close to home in one way or another, and I suppose that this is what the movie was designed to do. So there you have it - line drawn - one possible face of horror that does not involve pea soup hurling, vengeful CGI mummies, or the end of the world. Instead, it is a movie about a family processing grief and coming to terms with the unfair, the unpredictable, and the unexplainable. In many respects, all other horrors pale in comparison to looking for the answers to those questions and finding none.