Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Lake Mungo (2008)

Sixteen year old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns while she and her family - father Russell (David Pledger), mother June (Rosie Traynor) and brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe) - are bathing in a local river. A short time later, peculiar things start to happen in the Palmer's home. There are strange noises coming from Alice's room, the house starts to just feel weird, and June begins to suffer from nightmares about her daughter, as well as a tendency to break into the houses of other people to spend some time there. The latter, of course, is not exactly a sign of the supernatural but rather of a very sad woman. Russell once even meets his dead daughter when he feels pressed to enter her room.

Things don't become any calmer for the family when Alice appears on a photo Mathew makes of the family's backyard, nor when a shape that looks very much like her makes an appearance on a video made by someone close to the place where she died.

Alice is now quite at the end of her tether, and decides to consult the comparatively down to earth psychic Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) to help her and her family get closure. But before something like closure is possible, various secrets and lies will need to be uncovered; some of them sad, some horrifying.

The Australian low budget film Lake Mungo uses the form of one of these rather corny and often manipulatively constructed human interest documentaries to tell its story, and even though I am not a big admirer of that form, its narrative structures and conventions are ideal for the story the film's director and writer Joel Anderson has set out to tell. It's also a form just made to get around budgetary restrictions, for what is this sort of documentary other than a series of interviews, tapes, photographs and generally easy to realize narrative sequences? In other words, a perfect set-up for a ghost story.

Thanks to the set-up, there's no need for costly special effects either: some impressive and very natural landscapes help set the mood of dread and the slightly unreal, and everything supernatural that happens can be realized by having one actress stay very still and stare forlornly into the camera in the background of various low-res and out of focus shots.

What might sound a bit corny on paper turns out incredibly well in the film. In fact, I've been freaked out more by two particular scenes in the movie than I've been by whole series of torture porn movies. Anderson is particularly good at exploiting simple, archetypal figures (as seen in your last nightmare) and the strange power of conviction blurred and grainy photographs of (supposed) ghosts can have.

Ironically, given how disquieting the scary parts of the movie are, Anderson's film isn't mainly setting out to spook its viewers. The film is just as much interested in exploring emotional horrors not connected to the supernatural: loss, the inability to let go and the sudden realization that you didn't know your loved ones as well as you always assumed, among other, less easily explained things. The ghost is mainly there as a catalyst and a way to make the film's emotional punch even stronger. Much of that emotional effect is based on very convincing acting by a cast of actors who usually only get to play characters listed as "Suzie's boyfriend" or the like. Especially Rosie Traynor as the mother half on her way to serious mental harm is great.

My only problem with Anderson's film is the amount of twists its script contains. Some of them are needed thematically and on a plot level, but some others seem only to be there to make a film that doesn't need that sort of intervention more obviously dramatic. The last twist, or rather the revelation of why the film is called "Lake Mungo", on the other hand, is as strong and devastating as one could wish for, imbuing the story with a deep feeling of the unavoidable that is as fitting as it is sad.

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