Jul 6, 2011

Lake Mungo [15]

Dir: Joel Anderson
At first glance, Lake Mungo looks to be just one more in the recent glut of found footage horror films, specifically a close cousin to Paranormal Activity (though the two films were made at roughly the same time). However, as the film's 87 minutes tick by, something a bit different, and altogether more interesting, reveals itself.

In 2005 in the small Australian town of Ararat, Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns while swimming at the local dam. After her death her parents (Rosie Traynor, David Pledger) and her brother (Martin Sharpe) begin to sense a presence in the house, and see what appears to be Alice's ghost in photographs and video footage they have taken. This leads them to look deeper into the circumstances of the time surrounding Alice's death, and they discover some disturbing things.

Writer/director Joel Anderson makes a creditable debut here, crafting a film that is convincing in its documentary construction, from the use of interviews and found footage, down to the occasional creepy recreated shot illustrating a piece of expository dialogue, the whole film feels very much like a modern documentary. Where it really convinces though is with the acting. The perennial problem of the mock doc is that many fall into the trap of feeling acted. Lake Mungo never does. I'm not sure whether Anderson stuck closely to a script or had his cast improvise their dialogue from his guidance, but however he achieved it there is a tremendous sense of reality in these performances. The Palmer family feels like a family, they all react differently, but convincingly, to their grief and everything they say in the interviews feels like they are relating a story they lived through, and re-experiencing the emotions. This is true from top to bottom of the cast list, there's not a weak link here.

Anderson doesn't go for empty style here, but his shots are well designed, always preserving the verisimilitude of the film, but also creeping you out at the pivotal moments. The images of a ghostly Alice are haunting, and the grainy nature and slowly revealed complexity of them allows Anderson to draw you in to every frame, studying, hunting the clues. Some may not warm to the film's slow burn pace, but for me it worked perfectly (certainly this is a much better paced film than Paranormal Activity, and its 80 minutes waiting/30 seconds payoff ratio). Lake Mungo doles out small revelations on a regular basis, and always manages to surprise us by dwelling in the details (the ones you'll miss first time round). Ultimately it takes us briefly down several different roads regarding what, exactly, happened to Alice, and there is a refreshing openness to the ending, a sense that posing questions and positing ideas is enough, that the answers are what we make them.

Lake Mungo makes for an interesting companion piece to the more visceral horror films that have lately been coming from Australia. This creepy little film may not be for gorehounds, but it sneaks up and gets under your skin. I also suspect that it will reward multiple viewings, as you challenge yourself to see things before they are revealed, and perhaps to divine the truth of what happened to Alice. This comes highly recommended.

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