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Retrospective Film Review: Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo

Sunday 02 November 2014
Words Lizzie

It’s been a good year for decent horror movies. First there was Leigh Janice’s Honeymoon, then more recently Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook – both doozies in the genre. Of course, this means that statistically, I’ve had my quota for the time being and can be expected to be disappointed at the next fifteen to twenty horrors I watch. I’m counting, in my successful run, somewhat cheekily, this mockumentary from 2008 which somehow passed me by.

The Australian Lake Mungo isn’t so much directly seated in the found footage camp (although that device does spookily play its part), but rather wouldn’t be out of place as part of Channel 4’s Dispatches series, looking at grief and the vulnerability that accompanies it. Lake Mungo succeeds primarily because despite Chris Morris’ best intentions, most exposés, no matter how serious the subject, still insist on much the same format – one that seeks to ramp up the drama by using emotion-conjuring non-diagetic scoring and overly-narrational scene structuring and editing, telling rather than objective and less hysterical showing. One example of where the latter triumphantly succeeds over the former was in David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. There’s a calming, mesmeric way that things unfold. The difference between letting the current carry you and powering downstream in a motorboat. However, nigglings aside, Lake Mungo‘s tale is an effective one; we get Mum and Dad,  June and Russell Palmer (Rosie Treynor and David Pledger) and their son Mathew (Martin Sharpe) recounting for the camera the day they all went swimming at a dam in Ararat when the family’s daughter Alice (Zucker) tragically drowned. Soon after, the surviving three experience strange occurrences at their home. Is Alice trying to make contact with them from beyond the grave, or is there a more terrestrial explanation?

Writer and director Joel Anderson’s blend of slow tracks and dollies provide elegant counterpoint to the film’s wow and fluttery VHS archive recordings where faces and figures may lurk within the grain, but can’t resist leaning on the ghost story when possibly a more foot-of-the-gas approach might have been more effective. Its bearing on contemporary documentary filmmaking technique ultimately proves its potency, and of course, we need more horror that gets under the skin rather than superficially scratches the surface.

Words: Ash Verjee