Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: LAKE MUNGO (2008)

(Australia - 2008; 2010 US release)

Written and directed by Joel Anderson.  Cast: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Steve Jodrell, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker.  (R, 87 mins)

"Alice kept secrets.  She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."

While it owes a tremendous debt to elder statesmen trendsetters like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), the found footage/faux documentary subgenre really exploded with the runaway success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009).  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY has spawned three sequels (four if you count Japan's tenuously-connected and still-unreleased-in-the-US PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: TOKYO NIGHT) and countless imitations in the short time since its release, as the subgenre is particularly ideal for ghost stories and demonic possession, as we've seen with films like THE LAST EXORCISM (2010) and the terrible THE DEVIL INSIDE (2012).  PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sat on the shelf for a few years before its eventual release (remember how the ads informed us that we demanded it?), which also happened--at least in the US--with the Australian film LAKE MUNGO.  Shot in 2007, LAKE MUNGO was made around the same time that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY was starting to be screened at horror festivals but well before it became a pop culture phenomenon with the general public, and while it deals with ghosts and video cameras, it really does stand on its own and can't simply be dismissed as a knockoff.  But at the same time, one must acknowledge that LAKE MUNGO very likely only got its belated 2010 US release because of the huge success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.

Lionsgate acquired the US rights to LAKE MUNGO and packaged it as part of their fourth "After Dark Horrorfest," which was basically a bunch of largely shitty, D-grade zombie flicks and torture porn SAW ripoffs that got dumped in theaters for a week before heading to DVD.  There were a few legitimately good films to be found--Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED (2006), Xavier Gens' FRONTIER(S) (2008), and Sean Ellis' THE BROKEN (2009) are definite standouts--but anyone approaching LAKE MUNGO with a shrug and the expectation of a standard-issue PARANORMAL ACTIVITY clone found something else entirely:  a faux-doc horror film with found footage (and photographs) in a thought-provoking, unnerving, and often heartbreaking examination of death, grief, guilt, secrets, family dynamics, loss of innocence, things left unsaid, and the impossibility of ever really completely knowing someone.  It also has numerous scenes that just flat-out give you the fucking willies.

Writer/director Joel Anderson masterfully handles the documentary aspect, and it helps--for a US audience, at least--that the actors are essentially unknown (two stars, Martin Sharpe and Talia Zucker, co-starred on a short-lived Australian TV series called SCOOTER: SECRET AGENT) and therefore can easily sell the faux-doc angle.  Using the clinical approach that brings to mind the best work of Errol Morris, Anderson tells the story of 16-year-old Alice Palmer (Zucker) who drowns in a lake while on a day trip with her family--mom June (Rosie Traynor), dad Russell (David Pledger), and older brother Mathew (Sharpe).  The Palmers (certainly a reference to TWIN PEAKS) are a normal, middle-class family in Ararat, Victoria, and Alice, by all appearances, is a typical 16-year-old girl, has a boyfriend, and is well-liked by her friends.  All are devastated by her tragic death, and the family copes in different ways:  Russell focuses on his job and Mathew his photography, while June cannot find closure and suffers from recurring nightmares and in an attempt to find some normalcy, resorts to entering neighboring houses in the middle of the night just to be in an environment without such crushing grief.  It's the kind of neighborhood where everyone knows one another and doors are left unlocked, and everyone gossips about what June is doing, but they more or less view this strange trangression as a coping mechanism and give her some space to grieve.

In the weeks following Alice's death, the Palmers start hearing noises in the house.  Alice's bedroom door slams. Mathew has unexplained bruising.  Russell tells of actually encountering what he believes was Alice's ghost in her room.  Mathew sets up a video camera and captures a brief image of a blurred figure moving down a hallway.  Photographs taken around the house and the yard start to reveal faint, fuzzy images of what appear to be Alice lingering in the background.  Another Ararat resident finds similar blurry images of Alice in a photograph taken at the lake. A review of one night's footage inexplicably finds the next-door neighbor crouched in a corner in Alice's bedroom. The Palmers reach out to radio psychic and paranormal expert Ray Kemeney (veteran Australian TV director Steve Jodrell), and here is where LAKE MUNGO takes the first of several unexpected turns that set it apart from the rest of its type.

To relay any more of the plot would do a disservice to those who haven't seen it, but LAKE MUNGO is ultimately a fright film of surprising depth and emotion, which is not to imply that it forgets its primary mission:  there are several sequences in this film that recall--and equal--the level of disturbing creepiness in the "shared dream" sequences of John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  Any fan of PRINCE OF DARKNESS feels the hairs on their neck stand just with the mere mention of those scenes.  When Anderson breaks out the found footage on a cell phone that Alice buried out of fright while partying at Lake Mungo with friends, LAKE MUNGO establishes its horrific bona fides and cements its place as a modern cult horror classic.  The cell phone scene is definitely LAKE MUNGO's money shot, as it were.  But all throughout the film, Anderson does such a terrific job of creating an ominous, dread-filled, slow-burning atmosphere that something as played out as a ghost story manages to feel fresh, inventive, and truly terrifying.  To date, Anderson, whose only prior credit was a 2002 short, has yet to make another film. 

By 2010, the After Dark fests were barely getting into theaters, so no one really got a look at LAKE MUNGO until it turned up on DVD, and it didn't take long for word of mouth to spread via DVD review sites, movie discussion boards, and social networking that there was a little more going on with it than first impressions would indicate and that it really was a sleeper gem that was worth seeing.  Aside from being one of the most consistent and convincing in the realm of faux documentaries, it's also one of the most devastating and genuinely scary horror films of the last decade.

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