Lake Mungo first appeared at a film festival in Austin in 2009. In that year the director Joel Anderson discussed Lake Mungo in an interview that was published on Facebook. Joel Anderson has not made another film since Lake Mungo. He has no Wikipedia entry and apart from Lake Mungo there is little evidence on Google that he exists or is working. Lake Mungo was the first full-length feature by Joel Anderson. The movie has been acclaimed by critics. Australia has produced some decent horror movies. The Babadook, which tops the lists of best Australian horror movies, is overrated and nowhere near as profound as it pretends but is an accomplished film. Calling it the best, though, diminishes the importance of Australian horror cinema. Lake Mungo belongs to an honourable tradition.
In 2005 Anderson struggled for finance, and Lake Mungo was the low budget alternative to the film he had wanted to make. For alternative it is possible to read compromise. Maybe after Lake Mungo director Anderson was not prepared to bargain. His disappearance may be because he refuses to make any more horror films. The man needs to work. Lake Mungo is not only a fine movie but also an impressive technical accomplishment. The documentary format of Lake Mungo has been seen in other films but none of the other examples have its integrity. The Bay, The Blair Witch Project and the other notable example, the British TV thriller Murder, all hedged their bets and used no more than a handful of characters to tell the tale. Lake Mungo utilises interviews and clips from a bewildering range of sources and individuals. We listen to the accounts and recollections of not just the family that has experienced the supernatural disturbance but also neighbours, friends, relatives, the police and a local paranormal investigator. Few low budget movies have credits that include a cast list the length of Lake Mungo. The celluloid sources are also varied and include police videos, TV newsreels, home movies, and photographs. It takes skill, effort and patience to fit together the complicated elements of Lake Mungo into a cohesive package.
The interviews with the actors were unscripted but the many actors were given a rough idea of the story. Off camera Joel Anderson asked questions of the actors. The performers are convincing but professional actors can fake TV interviews without too much effort. This should be no surprise because it appears to be a skill that is shared by the general public. The triumph of the actors and Anderson in Lake Mungo is that the reactions by the characters in the film are as banal or as uninspired as we would expect. The actors may look like they are cruising through day-to-day clichés but somehow their characters are important. Joel Anderson chose performers who had authentic faces and voices. The people we see on screen have a normality that belongs to common humanity. Their reactions and responses to the mystery have a wide reach. We observe something more worrying than a supernatural presence. The personalities on display are limited and flawed. At some point in the last 200 years the existence or non-existence of ghosts should have been established unequivocally. But human beings are defined by self-deception, irrationality and tentative convictions. Arguments and mysteries persist beyond when they should not.
The movie begins with a selection of old photographs of various faces. Most in the audience will assume that they have been taken by the film crew. Instead, the black and white photographs were chosen from archives. The sequence is effective. We realise that all photographs contain a mystery. As viewers, we can either settle for the pose of the subject or search the background for hidden mystery. This is what most photographs contain, a human face and a background that may be plain or have detail. The background offers a glimpse of a hidden universe whatever that may be. The face is affected by the disguises that humans adopt. A viewer can be certain of nothing and imagine anything.
Most of the movie is shot in low light and a fair amount of time is spent looking at darkness. These obscure scenes require some patience from cinema-goers. Most withheld that patience. Lake Mungo had critical approval but only a limited release. It did not sell tickets. The lack of jump scares was a contributory factor. Lake Mungo has a supernatural element but it is not terrifying or even scary. Instead, we have a mystery that has bewildered family and neighbours and left audiences confused. The momentary images in the final credits are a cheap trick and not worthy of the film. The mother of the dead daughter produces an explanation of the odd events but it is not supported by proof. The explanation is a psychological crutch for the mother. It makes a kind of sense to her, and she and her family need to move on. The truth is that sometimes it makes more sense to sigh rather than investigate. The mother responds in a similar way to the strange and unforgivable behaviour of her son. She knows he has told lies but she avoids contemplating his motives.
The dead daughter is observed by the audience in film taken before her death. She has history that since her death has a different meaning. Death and the doubt about what may be happening in the house have given her special status. ‘Death is the meanest, dumbest machine there is, it just keeps coming’ is not an elegant phrase but it resonates. The daughter is important because she not only haunts the family but because her modest posthumous presence transcends or supersedes the mystery of her death. Joel Anderson has said that he wanted the film to be an exploration of grief rather than a horror movie. In Lake Mungo what follows death is more troubling than the events that led to the death. Grief contains its own surprises because it reshapes memories and reality.
The low light on screen is not just befuddling shadow. Apart from adding to the tension it has its visual moments. There is a fabulous late night shot of a motorcar following the bottom of a black screen. All we see are the two red pinpoints that identify the beamless headlights. The scenes by Lake Mungo when the body is discovered are also well done. The colour has a dark tint that adds atmosphere to the landscape but is also a constant reminder that the characters in the film are appearing in a record preserved in artificial celluloid. We observe the interviews while knowing that the actual events are remote. Everything we see is nothing more than a clue to what happened in the past. Perhaps this is what really terrifies us about ghosts. Their potential for violence is limited but the damned things do have baggage.
An obvious comparison for Lake Mungo is Picnic At Hanging Rock but that film had a deliberate style and elegance. Charisma, myth and subsequent legend added to the appeal of the Victorian mystery. Lake Mungo is more downbeat and natural. The opening credits suggest it is a true story that happened in 2005 but this claim, like the one in Fargo, is bogus. But if the events were true, they would have been soon forgotten. The ordinary lives in Lake Mungo are not the stuff of legend. The unflattering view of human nature compares to the disturbing and very different Snowtown. In that movie an Australian community supports the local serial killer. Nothing can be as bleak about people as Snowtown but both films reveal enough for us to worry about the human race and its future. We really do have our limitations and should not be trusted. Snowtown was directed by Justin Kurzel. The two directors are not the only Australians to have cynical attitudes towards people. Just over a week ago Rupert Murdoch sold part of his media empire for billions of dollars. In the UK his newspapers are scrutinised by critics for bias and lies. Paul Dacre owns the Daily Mail and may even be a rival. Although the two proprietors are successful at attracting readers for their newspapers, 90% of the British population think they have a negative impact on life in the country. Both Murdoch and Dacre are masters of unfair arguments, distortion and untruths that are too many to be checked. The two men understand they have the power and ability to create shadows and that most of us find half-truths more comforting than explanations. Tribunals meet and appear to make recommendations on how the behaviour of a corrupt press can be regulated and the damage mitigated but to no effect. Members of the Government attend lavish banquets thrown by the media moguls and refrain from implementing restraints. The families of murder victims have been abused by the employees of Murdoch and Dacre. The past becomes remote shadows and the unnecessary suffering is forgotten. As in Lake Mungo, the injured families and curious newspaper readers move on because they have to live their lives. Grief is exploited and twisted until it is no longer useful. When that happens, it is wrapped in old newspaper and thrown away.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.