Lake Mungo (2008, dir. Joel Anderson):
While there are certainly horror films that use the “found footage” genre to great, and horrifying, effect, none of them have been as (arguably) successfully chilling as Lake Mungo. Most of the movies that claim to use real home videos or documentary footage do a great job at trading on the limitations of having the major vantage point be restricted to just what can be captured in the lens of a camera, and the resulting movements and the inability to catch things that happen just outside of the frame of the camera can effectively amp up those moments when the fear of what the characters are experiencing is caught on film, but what they are afraid of isn’t. For me, it is often what I am imagining to be happening just out of range of the camera’s eye that is the most terrifying, and interestingly, Lake Mungo doesn’t play by the rules that have always seemed to me to be the most effective. Not only does the movie not rely on shaking camera movements or reaction shots to keep the viewer in suspense, the narrative of the story is actively involved in exposing those things found on film as emotional resonances to tragedy. And honestly, by not playing by the (now) played-out tropes of found footage filmmaking, and creating a moving story of exploring heartbreak and misfortune, Lake Mungo will sneak up on you—chilling is by far the best descriptor that comes to mind, though unsettling wouldn’t be far behind.
The story breaks with the found footage tropes right from the start: rather than setting up the narrative to film the troubling events as they unfold, the footage is used in retrospect: the Palmer family, after the tragic loss of their fifteen year-old daughter Alice, begin to chronicle the disturbances in their home as they work through the grieving process—Alice’s brother, Matthew, sets up cameras around the house trying to capture these presumed hauntings on film and even brings a psychic in for consultation. The events have all taken place in the past and are interspersed with “present” day interviews with the family and the people they interacted with over the time period of the haunting, as if they are discussing their experiences with a television show trying to construct a coherent narrative about how the Palmer family dealt with both the grief of their loss and the disconcerting movements around their home. This format of looking at these past events through a present understanding of what has taken place is immensely effective at exploring the Palmers’ willingness to believe that Alice is still with them and the unsettling footage revealed by Matthew’s home videos, and some disturbing moments hidden in Alice’s past.
By eschewing some of the more sea-sickness-inducing effects produced by shaky hand-held camerawork (with the exception of a camera-phone video that, in the worst way, seriously dates the film because of the low level of technology), writer/director Joel Anderson captures the terrors this family experiences both during Alice’s death and in the aftermath without relying on scaring the viewer with what she can’t see. Rather than fearing what happens on the fringes of the camera’s gaze, Lake Mungo spends its time actively struggling to find a logical explanation for the terrors captured in Matthew’s film, and it creates a beautiful and haunting exploration of the relationships between trauma, grief, and the supernatural experiences of the Palmer family. The hunt for a logical explanation, however, is where the true chills come in, and to say more about what this search uncovers would spoil Lake Mungo’s truly well played hand. Buoyed along by very natural performances by a small and mostly unknown cast, a tightly woven script, and making use of fantastic footage of the real location of Lake Mungo in southeastern Australia, this is one slowly paced haunter that is required viewing for anyone who loves taut storytelling and creative uses of worn-out tropes.