Saoirse’s Cult Corner #19: Lake Mungo (2008)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week, we take a look at Australian mockumentary chiller, Lake Mungo

Did you ever see monsters under the bed? In your closet? It’s an old movie scene, the kid calls the Dad into their room to show them that there are no monsters creeping around in the dark. The Dad obliges, but what happens sometimes in these movies is the camera pans away and we see the monster hiding in somewhere we never thought to look… 

Lake Mungo is many things. It is a naturalistic mockumentary drama about what it is to lose and grieve. It’s a movie that very accurately reflects the culture of a small pocket of Australian suburban/rural life. It is also a very obvious homage to cult TV show Twin Peaks with a heavy dollop of the cult classic film, which shall get its own column some day, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. This seems to throw a lot of people off because of its very dry and naturalistic trappings but those that know, know. Lake Mungo primarily though is a bracing and striking Australian horror film from 2008, about the aftermath of the disappearance and then discovery of a drowned girl called Alice Palmer. You see shots of the remaining family standing in front of a house and crime scenes photos of Alice’ rotting, bloated, white carcass. These are surprise shots that will help us later. 

Over the course we meet a variety of characters, all of whom to a greater and lesser extent fit archetypes laid down by the Twin Peaks TV show. We meet her friends, the charmingly ordinary police woman looking into her case, and we meet the celebrity psychic her parents bring in after her disappearance after what at first can only be explained as ghostly happenings start happening. 

Lake Mungo opens with a ghostly monologue that again, later comes up in the film “Alice kept secrets, she kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret”, which, yes, does totally drip Twin Peaks, but also I think has a ghostly ambience all of its own. Ultimately it is in this dichotomy that the real appeal and subtle technique of Lake Mungo is truly revealed, it has the chilling ghost story ambience, but the film is constantly inviting you into the world of reality, through the mockumentary format, through the believable sculpting of character dynamics, and through eerily realistic acting, (this is maybe the most in any film I have felt like I am watching actual people, more than any straight drama I’ve ever seen), and then in the alleged pulling back of the emerald curtain. The film almost lulls you into a false sense of security by playing it like it’s one kind of scary horror film with ghosts appearing on video that look very badly photoshopped in, admittedly with some wonderful atmosphere and scares laid on, it convinces you that this is real and pervasive, then it shows you the wizard pulling the strings, and the horror suddenly becomes that more naturalistic answer, of just people hurting, and hurting others through their hurting. What happens then is it keeps building, and building, and building with weirdness and fucked up human behaviour and just subtle human tragedy, leading us down this friendly country path to the big gut punch, that as soon as it comes, you realise the whole thematic core of the film has been revolving around, and it is one of the most singularly existential, harrowing, terrifying, disturbing, gruesome images ever put to cinema. The film shows you the mechanics of how the scare is made, almost of the making of cinema itself, then gives you something that transcends any of those mechanics. The film is simultaneously the Dad in our opening metaphor, and the monster under the bed. It has shown us the potential for horrordom, it has shown us the first half of the movie, then the child, fucking terrified, has seen demons everywhere, the father comes and says it’s alright, shows us how the horror sausage was made, and then, as soon as he leaves, the camera pans up to the ceiling and we see, perched like Toni Collette in Hereditary between the structural beams, the finale of this film, ready to eat our souls. 

There are of course other things to praise. While the unsettling realism is crafted through amazing acting and creative handheld camera work creating a level of verisimilitude that only makes the film’s fantastical scares all the more brutal, there’s also filmmaking that verges on… elegiac? There’s beautiful use of turquoise tinted sea greens and time lapse photography that gives it this strange ambiance of something alien infecting the whole of the world in which we live. We enter a surreal Lynchy Bavay world for short interludes, hinting at the world breaking terror to come but still maintaining us in the uncanny realism of the rest of the drama. 

So, what are the fundamental questions with Lake Mungo? Is it like Twin Peaks? No shit Sherlock, the creators goddamn admitted so. It, like Twin Peaks, takes a tragedy initially as an excuse to explore a fascinating and charming suburban town still with darkness underneath it, and uses that darkness then as a tool to explore the tragedy of one young girl who got in above her head in increasingly surreal and horrific ways. It is not just a Twin Peaks rip off though and I think to say otherwise is just being reductionist, condescending, and lazy. It uses the haunting, emotional depth of the ghost story model and naturalism of mockumentary to create an ambience and terror all of its own that slowly keeps up on you, until it’s too late and you are in it’s vice like claws and then even after the movie’s finished, it is a grip you will never escape.

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