Lake Mungo purports to be a documentary about certain events in the small Australian town of Ararat in 2005. Sixteen year old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns in a weir while picnicking with her family, and soon afterwards strange sounds start coming from her bedroom. Over the ensuing weeks, the dead girl appears inexplicably in photographs taken in the back yard and near the spot where she died. More murky manifestations are recorded by the battery of video cameras which the disturbed family set up around the house, and then it's time to call in a psychic and have a séance around the kitchen table.
Aided by a thoroughly convincing cast, writer/director Joel Anderson mixes together fake news clips, eye witness reports, interviews with the family and bits and pieces of found footage competently enough. But audiences have come a long way since they used to quiver uncontrollably at the blurry goings on of The Blair Witch Project, and recent movies in a similar vein such as , Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism have pretty much strip-mined the docu-horror sub-genre of its potential to scare the bejesus out of you. And the less disarmed you are by the exercise, the more aware you become of the slightly absurd contrivances used to explain how it is there always seems to be a camcorder running at just the right time. In this case, the movie also suffers from the filmmakers breaking their own rules on occasion by having supposedly static lenses suddenly panning and zooming onto shapes skulking in the shadows.
The strength of Lake Mungo rests in the material, not the method. What starts off as a straightforward ghost story deepens into a portrait of a family struggling to come to terms with grief, the father (David Pledger) becoming a work zombie, the mother (Rosie Traynor) taking to nightly incursions into other people's homes and the son (Martin Sharpe) trying to bring his sister back through the medium of trick photography. With the discovery of a diary exuding nebulous dread and a video tape showing the supposedly virginal Alice in a threesome with the couple next door, the narrative spreads into a Twin Peaks style, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”-esque exploration of the dark roots of the girl's demise. One friend explains, “She kept secrets and she kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret.”
As the bewildered parents learn more about a daughter who was far more complex than they ever imagined while she was alive, the film delivers moments that are both gripping and touching, and the detective work eventually leads to a discovery of truly skin-crawling awfulness. Yes, it comes rather late to the docu-horror party, but Lake Mungo will definitely have anyone who sees it peering suspiciously at any vague blobs in the corners of their holiday snaps.
Lake Mungo is out now.