Overview: A documentary-style horror movie captures the Palmer family, who have lost their teen daughter to an accidental drowning and pursue their grief to chilling conclusions. Arclight Films; 2008; Rated R; 89 Minutes.
Believing the Illusion: For this film to work, the illusion of the honest documentary is imperative. What holds Lake Mungo together is the sincerity captured in the performances of its actors. The family of Alice Palmer are framed as convincingly distraught. The grief feels real, the mourning honest in its weight. I know little of Australian cinema, but from this single film, I can say that Rosie Traynor and David Pledger, who portray the grieving parents, are top level talents.
The Horrific: While early misdirection suggests otherwise in exploration of photographic “evidence,” there exist very few scenes of horror pursuit in Lake Mungo. Much like the international modern classic Audition, Lake Mungo spends the majority of its running time pursuing more dramatic construction and narration. To my mind, there are really only two images of pure horror in Lake Mungo, an autopsy photograph and recovered cell phone footage. I remember them both vividly, to eerie effect, which means the movie has two more memorable horror scenes than all American horror films of the last decade, which attempt to smother the viewer in non-stop horror stimuli. These two shaking images will haunt viewers for months, if not years.
True Fear: While the film certainly earns its horror credentials, its boldest, most residual investigation is in solid, everyday truths: the unavoidable assurance that we will die, that everyone we love will die, and worst of all, we might lose our loved ones even before that happens. Of all the supernatural or seemingly supernatural discoveries made in the wake of their daughter’s death, the most jarring and damaging discovery is about a disturbing truth that manifested in the reality of her life.
The Best Metric: I was probably in my young teens the last time I finished a movie and then hesitated to move in the darkness to turn on the light. The credits of Lake Mungo had long stopped rolling before I braved the seven feet from my chair to the light switch. Now a year since my first viewing, the film’s presentation of a unique conceptual horror, the idea of being haunted by the gruesome image of one’s own corpse, is enough to give me literal goosebumps. What better way to gauge a horror movie?