Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo

I recall listening to a podcast some years back and the topic of bad horror films came up. And by bad, I really mean “lazy.” Namely, major studio efforts to cash in on the genre’s popularity. You can spot these films coming a mile away: an over-reliance on jump scares, tired rehashings of established properties, a watered-down PG-13 rating — think 2015’s limp remake of Poltergeist. Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Jared Harris are all getting that bread, but the final product does nothing to justify its existence. As a rebuttal, one of the podcast hosts brought up 2008’s Lake Mungo, and I jotted it down for a rainy day. When that downpour came, I was blown away by a criminally underseen gem.

Lake Mungo is an Australian horror film that arrived a few years before Netflix’s Making a Murderer blew the dam for the true-crime wave that has washed over us since. Director Joel Anderson draws from that same well to tell the tragic tale of Alice Palmer: a fifteen-year-old drowning victim, and the grieving family that she left behind. Told through a compilation of interviews, home movies, and old photographs, this “documentary” explores the supernatural events that haunted the Palmers in the months following Alice’s death.

As someone who works on documentaries, I understand how cobbled together they typically are. What’s impressive about Lake Mungo is how closely it hews to that form. There is never a wink to the audience as if to say: “just go along with this.” Every aspect is conveyed matter-of-fact, almost mundane. This could easily pass as real. Its natural performances and presentation allow the film to deliver an altogether eerie and, oddly enough, moving experience. Rarely do horror films reach this sort of emotional resonance. Beyond the inherent creepiness of the premise, what appeals most to me is the overwhelming sense of sorrow that imbues the film. Guillermo Del Toro once said that “the best ghost stories all have an undertow of melancholy.” He probably loves the shit out of Lake Mungo.

“Everyone grieves in their own way,” is a line of dialogue spoken in the film but could also serve as its thesis. The first act does an extraordinary job of contextualizing how the loss of Alice is felt by her father, mother, and brother in the months following her passing. It’s an agonizing recollection of little moments before and after she died. So things start off slow, but it pays off when Alice’s spectral apparition starts appearing in a series of photographs. By that point, I found myself wholly invested in their story and that’s before the narrative starts to twist and turn like the best episodes of Tiger King.

Lake Mungo is a refreshing spin on the ghost story and a powerful message about death. It serves as a reminder that a person’s story does not end when their life does. We can continue to learn about them, the good and the bad, so long as we pay attention.