Film Review: LAKE MUNGO(2008) A Creepy Study on the Archaeology of Loss and Guilt

Death is a sure shot sniper. Since the beginning of time, it has been ending people with extreme prejudice. The Grim Reaper doesn’t care what color your skin is, or what god you pray to at night before you go to sleep. When death has you in the crosshairs, you are better off just coming up with an entertaining epitaph for someone to carve out for you. If you were a bore in life, at least be entertaining when you are dead. Maybe your family will now want to spend time with you?

I believe death is easiest on the dead. You won’t feel the worms burrowing themselves into your fatty tissue. However, it leaves the grieving living feeling as cold as a corpse’s cunt. Death lets secrets escape like those ghosts from the Ark of the Covenant, beautiful at first and quickly becoming monstrous and destructive.

Do we ever really know somebody, even those who are supposedly closest to us? Does sharing a living space entail exposing what is in our hearts and minds to those we break bread with? What private ghosts sleep in the same bed as the person in the bedroom down the hall? You can borrow their coat, but don’t look too deep into that dark closet.

Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo is an effectively creepy little horror movie. It is also a good examination on the archaeology of guilt and loss. It is a faux documentary that chronicles the painful ordeal of the Palmer family. They live in the town of Ararat in rural Australia. On a day trip swimming in a local lake, they lose track of sixteen year old Alice(Talia Zucker). She was last seen in the water. The authorities are called and the search is on.

Alice’s body is missing for days, somewhere in the murky waters.

The audience sees clips from the local news, showing police divers with high tech equipment and powerful search lights as they dredge the lake for Alice’s body. Interviews with terminally impassive police officers and the wounded Palmer family let us know that they realize Alice is gone and the recovery of the body will just be for closure and ceremony. These scenes are well realized and the actors help set us up for the dark journey that the Palmers are about to embark on.

The photos of Alice’s waterlogged body, bleached white, deformed and stained with black ooze are suitably disturbing. Her father, Russell(David Pledger), is summoned to identify the body. Hoping for resolution, the last view he sees of his daughter’s earthly body shows her distorted face, frozen with fear and pain. He tells us how his car would only drive in reverse on the way home.

We learn that soon after Alice’s burial, the strange occurrences begin.

Footsteps are heard on the Palmer’s roof. There is something wrong with the door in Alice’s vacant room. Roughed up by guilt like a hooker with an abusive pimp, mother June(Rosie Traynor) goes for long walks at night and wanders into other people’s homes. Brother Matthew’s(Martin Sharpe) photography hobby starts to show eerie things.Russell recounts an unsettling story that leaves him sobbing like a scared child on his dead daughter’s empty bed.

This is all standard horror movie stuff. No new ground is broken. However, when done right, these small interludes of impending creepiness are always effective. The cast, unknown to me, all sell the role of shell-shocked, grieving family member perfectly. The interview scenario helps, as each person is given their own soliloquy to share their grief and fear. We are spared any made for tv(this used to be an insult twenty years ago) pablum. There is no dialogue here that should have been spoken by the cast of a Fox TV show from the 1990’s. I loved Josie Bissett for reasons other than her acting.

The town of Ararat begins to regard the Palmers differently. They are pariahs who are treated politely. You can be served gourmet food in the tower dungeon, but, at the end of the day, you are still a prisoner. If there is a chain on the door, a comfortable bed is not much better than one made of nails. The Palmers get the sideways glares when they enter a restaurant. The local church decides to comfort them, though they are sure to mention the Palmers did not attend. Well meaning friends offer advice that can be as damaging as apparitions roaming your house, scaring the shit out of everyone that is still living in it.

The story unfolds like one of those mystery shows on the cable stations that cater to crimes that highlight all the dirty fluids that soil the clothes on laundry lines in small towns. Events occur and the neighborhood starts to become openly critical of the Palmers. This is especially apparent when the family contact radio talk show host and psychic Ray Kemeny(Steve Jodrell). Many view him as a charlatan–a scheming rainmaker offering Hollywood prop comfort to grieving families holding onto the last strands of hope. Many people want to know their loved ones are happy, even in death. It’s not a superstitious thing. It’s a human thing.

After a particularly harrowing discovery, June rummages through Alice’s closet and excavates her safe. In it, the Palmer family uncovers the keys to Alice’s hidden pain. It is shocking and disturbing. They focus on Alice’s class trip the previous year to Lake Mungo, a dry lake and tourist destination in Australia. The family takes a trip there and unearths what their daughter was confronted with on a windy and dark night. Digging for destiny can sometimes be problematic.

Just ask Luke Skywalker.

The film is technically well made on what was probably a small budget. There are no expensive special effects. However, Lake Mungo gets more across using still photographs and voice-over narration than many movies do with a billion dollars worth of slick and soulless CGI. As the camera slowly zooms in on Alice’s face as she does fun and mundane things teenagers across the world partake in,  there is always something in her eyes and shape of her mouth that suggests she is haunted by something.

Unlike many horror movies, the wounds here don’t bleed. That doesn’t mean they aren’t painful.





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