As the limited aperture of opportunity presented by the horror pseudo-documentary genre narrows inexorably with each subsequent entry to its catalogue, it seems less and less likely that any new releases can capture the authentic creepiness of the small number of greats which lend the genre a presence amongst its more conventional peers. With the inherent limitations of the format, creativity needs to flow abundantly for new entries to make an impression in this tiny yet saturated market, and audiences tend to enter viewings with some cynicism, presenting an extra mountain for the filmmakers to climb whilst already hauling the baggage of the notable failed attempts which have come before.
Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project certainly stamped its firm imprint onto the genre, and impressively, Heather Donahue’s dripping nose wasn’t the most frightening visual in the piece (although it was fairly unsettling, at the least). Paranormal Activity later revived interest in such matters with its more structured approach as a couple perform video recording with the explicit objective of capturing the source of their haunting on film. And the Eli Roth-produced effort The Last Exorcism carved a refreshing angle by presenting the ‘found footage’ within the framework of a documentary, the filmmakers cleverly cutting themselves some extra creative slack by vindicating the use of atmospheric music and snappy editing. The result was effectively chilling.
So what of Australian effort Lake Mungo, a film that has been lurking in the wings of the horror subgenre for the last few years? How could it possibly enhance a genre which surely has very few tricks left up its sleeve?
In a technical sense at least, it’s unsurprising to report that Joel Anderson’s effort doesn’t deliver any new tricks. What does result in this becoming a quietly fascinating little film is that Anderson takes the horror documentary format, and transforms it into a familial character study, a tale of subtle yet profound misalignment between the generations and the genders which is as sad as it is disturbing. Told through a series of character interviews and police and news footage, we learn about Alice Palmer, a 16 year old girl who drowns whilst swimming in the local dam. The family are naturally devastated, yet as we gain an insight into the reaction of the local community, we come to realise that Alice was a troubled teen, and as the depressing story unfolds, Anderson starkly exposes the sometimes jarring dynamics of female familial relationships. The barely spoken weight of maternal guilt – throughout the generations - becomes ever clearer.
Despite excellent performances from the interviewed family and friends, who generate a sphere of utter credibility, it’s tempting to criticise Anderson for the potential incongruousness spawned from the multiple twists, turns, and shocks of the plot. The ghostly images during the opening sequence, for example, seem present for little other than to rattle your nerves. Yet Anderson’s judgement is shrewd, as this cost-effective entrance performs its duty splendidly. He realises he can’t rely on expensive effects, set pieces, or Grand Guignol climaxes; instead, he carefully allows the atmosphere of building dread to seep into your skin, and set against the backdrop of intra-gender tension, it’s a terrifying concoction indeed.
Against the odds, Lake Mungo utilises its limited resources with admirable efficiency to deliver some genuine chills to a saturated subgenre. I urge you to capture this little shocker now; as we speak, the American remake machine is preparing to unceremoniously consume its beating heart, and spit it out in emotionally drained, sanitised, and conveniently regurgitated form. As with so many others, Lake Mungo is worth more than that, so capture it whilst you can in its original and most powerful form.
Lake Mungo is a film that achieves much with relatively little, so you perhaps won’t be surprised to discover that it arrives from Second Sight on a single region 2 encoded DVD, with no extras. For all of that, just as the film itself makes the most of its modest materials, so does this barebones release. The reproduction of the visuals is suitably clean as the convincing modern documentary format is employed, with the 1.78:1 aspect ratio looking proportionate.
With much of the movie featuring footage of varying quality (video camera, mobile phone camera, etc.), you should be fully prepared for excessive graininess and pixilation during certain shots, which is an entirely expected and natural result. All considered, this is a respectable transfer.
There’s really only so much you should expect from a pseudo-documentary in terms of audio, and this presentation maintains a realistic presence with the audio sounding tinny and distorted where such Lo-Fi output would likely be the case. It is, of course, a slick documentary too, and in keeping with modern documentaries, the official footage during interviews is clear and free from distortion.
Lake Mungo does benefit from a documentary-style musical accompaniment, and the aural delivery is impressive enough, with a depth of bass that lends the picture its requisite disturbing nature. You can select to listen in either 2.0 or 5.1, and the surround sound makes for a truly unsettling experience indeed, especially if dark!
It’s a shame to report that Lake Mungo is bereft of extras, although this is at least in keeping with its documentary-style presentation.
Read between the lines of the exhilarating twists, turns, scares, thrills, and shocks, and you’ll discover a genuinely fascinating study of inter-generational gender tension, with the raw incongruence of female familial relationships exposed beneath the solid veneer of a middle class family. It’s a shame that there are no extras, but with such an effective documentary chiller being presented with a clean and clear transfer, this can only be a recommended investment.