Director: Joel Anderson
Screenplay: Joel Anderson
Starring: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, Steve Jodrell
Running Time: 97 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Following the huge success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, a wave of ‘found footage’ films, largely horror, arrived throughout the following decade. These peaked towards the end of the 00s, with the release of Paranormal Activity, REC, Cloverfield and District 9.
Made during this crest of the found-footage boom was Lake Mungo. Unlike the hugely popular titles I listed earlier, however, the independent Australian film never found its audience and soon drifted into obscurity.
However, many of those that did see Lake Mungo loved it and helped kick off a steady build of word of mouth, leading to the film developing a minor cult status. So much so that Lake Mungo, a 13-year-old film that only made $29,850 in its native Australia on release, is now getting the all-bells-and-whistles Limited Edition Blu-ray treatment from Second Sight.
I was one of those early cheerleaders of the film, after seeing it at the Celluloid Screams festival back in 2009. Whenever anyone would bring up the found footage or mockumentary genre, I would always mention Lake Mungo as one of my favourite examples. So, I was thrilled to hear about Second Sight’s new release. The question is, however, 13 years after watching this unexpected gem with a festival crowd, would it still hold up to my memory, which may be rose-tinted due to the sense of discovery in being one of the first people to come across the film. I dove into this new release of Lake Mungo to find out.
The film has quite a simple setup. The Palmer family, who live in Ararat, Australia, face tragedy after the teenage Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns in a lake (not Lake Mungo, it must be stated – that location doesn’t become part of the story until much later on). In the months after the incident, the Palmers begin to hear strange noises and see apparitions in their home.
Alice’s brother, Matthew (Martin Sharpe), sets up video cameras around the house and manages to capture what appears to be the ghost of Alice. Along with psychic Ray Kemeny, who Alice’s mother June (Rosie Traynor) consults, the family try to find out whether or not this is the spirit of their daughter and, if so, why it remains in their home.
Though I spent the first couple of paragraphs of this review discussing the found-footage boom of the 00s, Lake Mungo stands apart from most of this genre of films. Whereas Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity were pitched as being genuine footage, literally ‘found’ and presented fairly raw to the viewer, Lake Mungo actually goes for a full documentary approach.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a mockumentary (for want of a better name, as this certainly isn’t mocking anything) that embraces the format so wholeheartedly and effectively as Lake Mungo. Not only do we have talking-heads interviews guiding us through the story, as with many documentaries, but we also have cutaway shots and archive material to illustrate this, rather than a simple stream of ‘homemade’ footage.
Writer-director Joel Anderson isn’t afraid to use some really beautiful shots either. A great many ‘proper’ documentaries have well-composed, stylish cutaways too. They’re not all rough, handheld fly-on-the-wall affairs, particularly these days. These more clearly staged shots, along with the interviews and any other material that has to look like it was captured by the fictional crew, were shot on film which gives the material an attractive, cinematic look.
Most of the scares in the film come from the ‘home movie’ footage though. This material was shot on a range of actual consumer-level equipment, from various handicams to mobile phones. Anderson even went as far as to hire a real TV crew to cover the missing girl story as they would if the incident would have happened in real life (as well as getting the local police to enact what they would do to dredge the lake) and used their edited news piece. Using the ‘real thing’, rather than shooting on film or high def then scaling down or adding effects, gives the sequences a sense of naturalism. It also produces murky images of the ‘ghosts’ that aren’t all that clear, urging us to look closer and allowing our imaginations to fill in the gaps at times.
It was a particularly brave move to shoot the climactic scene on actual mobile phones. There are entire films shot on mobile phones now but, back then, mobile phone cameras were awful quality – sub-SD for the most part. The cast shot a lot of the footage themselves too in this sequence. It gives it a very real, disturbingly ambiguous and confusing feel.
The sense of atmosphere, in general, is incredible. There’s a palpable sense of unease, throughout. It’s genuinely unsettling, though it’s a tragic and melancholic drama about grief, as much as it is a horror film. You don’t get any traditional jump-scares (other than possibly one moment) and things move quite slowly and quietly, but I still found the film dug deep under my skin and I was rather nervous in the quiet of my home at night after watching it.
The beautiful, brooding score by David Paterson, which is further enhanced by several Murcof tracks, is key in establishing this atmosphere, as is the unsettling sound design by Craig Carter.
The film doesn’t purely ride on its atmosphere and stylistic approach though. It’s driven by some cracking good storytelling. The spooky home video footage might be the easy selling point of the film, but what keeps you hooked is the gripping story of a family trying to come to terms with a great loss. The plot is filled with twists along the way, including one bold turn that casts doubt on the ghostly images we have seen so far.
Anderson deserves a huge amount of praise for bringing all of this together. Working with a detailed story outline rather than a traditional script, he had his actors improvise their lines, whilst asking them questions as would happen in a traditional documentary shoot. Much of the film came together in the edit, due to this style, and it’s most impressive how cohesive and engrossing it all feels.
Very little information can be found online about Anderson. He’s not present in any of the special features and hasn’t made another film since, other than being credited as writing a short In 2013. According to an interview with Lake Mungo’s producer on this disc, the director was disheartened by the film not being well received in Australia and getting little attention elsewhere too, other than festivals. He did get offered a couple of Hollywood jobs but turned them down for some reason.
It’s a crying shame that this hugely talented filmmaker has disappeared off the map after this one feature. In subsequent years, the film has grown in stature and even been optioned for an American remake – initially as a film but reportedly now being considered for a TV series. Hopefully, this renewed interest will help bring Anderson out of the shadows so we can see what else he’s capable of.
I needn’t have worried whether the film would hold up without the ‘surprise factor’ of my initial viewing, as it’s equally as good as I remember, possibly even better. I imagine its quiet, melancholic nature won’t appeal to everyone, particularly those expecting a jump-scare-filled horror film, but I was totally drawn into its wonderfully crafted story, loved its authentic documentary approach and found it creepy as hell.
Lake Mungo is out on 7th June on Limited Edition Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Sight Films. The picture quality is an odd one to comment on, due to the nature of the mixed material that makes up the film. The 35mm and 16mm filmed elements look sharp and have a nice natural grain though, and the rough ‘home movie’ and TV-news footage all looks authentic. So, a perfect job on the visuals, in my opinion. Audio is solid too, with the haunting soundtrack coming through with depth and clarity.
Special features include:
– Archive audio commentary by Producer David Rapsey and DoP John Brawley
– New audio commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood
– Captured Spirits: an interview with DoP John Brawley
– Ghost in the Machine: an interview with Producer David Rapsey
– A Cop and a Friend: an interview with Actors Carole Patullo & James Lawson
– Kindred Spirits: Filmmakers Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead on Lake Mungo
– Hosting Spirits: Filmmaker Rob Savage on Lake Mungo
– Simulacra and Spirits: a video essay by film academic Josh Nelson
– Autopsy of a Family Home: a video essay by filmmaker Joseph Wallace
– Deleted Scenes
– English SDH subtitles for the hearing impaired
Limited Edition Contents:
– Rigid slipcase with new artwork by Thomas Walker
– 80-page softcover book with new essays by Sarah Appleton, Simon Fitzjohn, Rich Johnson, Mary Beth McAndrews and Shellie McMurdo; an interview with actor James Lawson by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; plus rare behind-the-scenes photos courtesy of John Brawley
– 3 art cards with new illustrations by Thomas Walker
The commentary with David Rapsey and John Brawley provides a detailed look at what the filmmakers were trying to achieve and how they did it. It’s a fascinating listen and reaffirms that the film isn’t a throwaway shocker and a lot of thought was put into its ideas, themes and technique.
The new commentary with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Emma Westwood digs deep into the cultural and historical background surrounding the locations and explores possible themes lurking under the surface of the film. It’s a thought-provoking and enjoyable listen that opens up Lake Mungo to various interpretations.
The interviews with Rapsey and Brawley provide more focused thoughts and recollections from the pair in comparison to their commentary track. They both have a lot to share, but it’s John Brawley’s interview that proves the most fruitful, running at a little over 45 minutes and offering a great deal of information about the production.
The interview with the cast members is pleasant and affectionate but not hugely illuminating. They played rather minor parts in the film so are odd choices of contributors to speak to. Few members of the primary cast and crew seem to be involved in the extras, which is odd.
The two ‘filmmaker fan’ pieces seem less essential too, on the surface, but they’re both enjoyable to watch and the contributors are clearly passionate about the film. They also offer some different perspectives on what makes Lake Mungo special, so the two interviews end up being surprisingly strong additions to the disc.
Josh Nelson’s essay is deeply analytic. Pieces like this can sometimes feel like they’re over-reaching for deeper meaning in a film, but Nelson puts forward some fascinating ideas about what Lake Mungo is examining and how its techniques work. It really helps you better appreciate the film.
Joseph Wallace’s essay looks at the family aspects of the story and themes. This includes examining the importance of the many drifting shots and time-lapses of empty rooms and the family home. It’s another interesting piece.
The deleted scenes contain a wide variety of material. There are some interview fragments that don’t add much and there are some more extreme additions that I’m glad they lost, such as a massive infestation of rats in the house. Most interestingly, there are some deleted house-cam shots that would have provided extra scares but they’re more blatant and in-your-face than the others that made the cut, and some feel more clearly manipulated, so again it was a good move to lose them.
I didn’t get a copy of the book to comment on that, I’m afraid.
So, a phenomenal set of extras for a film that fully deserves this VIP treatment. It’s a shame there are no contributions from writer-director Joel Anderson, but there’s so much here, it’s hard to complain and the release still comes very highly recommended.