Matt Glasby – journalist and author of The Book of Horror – takes a swim in the spectral waters of this underseen, frame-analysis Oz horror…
Appropriately for such a quiet film, Australian chiller Lake Mungo first came to my attention via the whispers of far-from-home Antipodes. My friend Matt lent me the DVD, released by After Dark Horrorfest 4 along with such unpromising titles as ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction. Watching it alone in my flat moved me to tears and scared me senseless – it still does – and how many low-budget horror films can you say that about?
Directed by first-timer Joel Anderson, Lake Mungo is a fake documentary about the Palmers, a small-town family haunted by visions of their daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker), after she drowns in the local dam. Unusually for this end of the market it’s beautifully made and sensitively acted, the format dovetailing perfectly with the subject matter to build a portrait of how the fallout from Alice’s death affects the whole town.
Though the film contains many genuinely frightening moments the smaller details hit home too, as each member of the family – dad Russell (David Pledger), mum June (Rosie Traynor) and brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe) – process their loss in different ways. One image is particularly eloquent: after identifying Alice’s body the family’s car breaks down, forcing them to drive home in reverse; their lives forever telescoping back towards the same awful moment.
From The Haunting to The Others, most grown-up ghost stories work by keeping alive the possibility that we’re not seeing anything supernatural at all but the imaginings of a damaged mind. What makes Lake Mungo so potent is that when the family see images of Alice – in photos, VHS tapes, mirrors – it doesn’t matter whether they are “real” or not: whether spectres or memories, they’re still manifestations of the same pain.
By the time I came to write The Book of Horror – a guide to the scariest movies ever made with beautiful black-and-white illustrations by Barney Bodoano – Lake Mungo’s reputation had grown to the point where you could pretty much divide the entire horror community into two camps: those who loved it, and those who hadn’t seen it. During the writing process I reached out to Joel, who has never made another film or given another interview since Mungo’s release. Sadly, he stayed true to form – another whisper in the darkness. I hope he knows what a masterpiece he made.