LAKE MUNGO: THE MOST UNSETTLING MOVIE WHERE NOTHING HAPPENS

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I’ve successfully been harassing the Killer POV crew for a while now about watching the Australian ghost flick, LAKE MUNGO.  When I was a sophomore in college, I came across this film at a Family Video store and I knew absolutely nothing about it.  The cover art drew me in and I went through a phase where I was determined to watch every releasing from After Dark Horrorfest’s 8 Films To Die For series.  Of all of these entries, I comfortably argue that LAKE MUNGO is one of their best.  The story revolves around The Palmer Family of Ararat, Victoria in Australia.  Parental units June and Russell, along with their son Matty are dealing with the unexpected drowning of their daughter/sister, Alice.  The film is assembled like the most depressing episode of Dateline NBC one could ever watch, but it’s the strange occurrences that start shortly after Alice’s death that helped push this film into one of my favorite ghost flicks of all time.

(IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS FILM, DO NOT READ AHEAD AS THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS.)

FYI: The film is currently available on HBOgo.

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Much like the first PARANORMAL ACTIVITY film, it’s best to walk into this film knowing as little about the film as possible.  The film opens deliberately slow, allowing us to see the real life ramifications of Alice Palmer’s death on her family, friends, and community.  There’s an arrangement of news reel footage, geographic B-roll, old family pictures/home movies, familial interviews, and photos from the discovery of Alice’s corpse after days of being under water.  With the exception of the rather jarring images of Alice’s dead and bloated body, there’s really nothing that I would consider particularly scary.  From the very beginning, the tragic circumstances presented to the viewer jolt the audience right into a world of uncertainty and sorrow. The interviews with the relatives are painfully genuine, with shaky voices, thoughtful pauses, welling eyes, and a visible struggle to keep it together in front of a camera.  The film looks and feels like a hidden documentary gem found after hours of perusing Netflix.  Had I not known that this film wasn’t a documentary, this 20-30 minute start would have had me fooled.

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After Alice’s death, the unexplained slowly starts to edge it’s way into the picture by a variety of mediums.  Alice slowly begins popping up in the background of photographs taken by her brother Matty and footage taken by other people visiting the lake where Alice drowned.  After Matty installs cameras into the house, the footage becomes increasingly eerie.  Alice seems to be everywhere.  The hallway, the kitchen, her bedroom, and even in the reflections of mirrors.  There have been plenty of paranormal investigative films that have played with the “figure in a picture” style of scare, but Alice’s appearances don’t ever look like a photoshopped insertion.  The images are distorted, her figure isn’t always perfectly outlined, and her expressions aren’t distorted in appearance. It’s the use of out of focus, fuzzy camera footage that helps provide the genuine fear factor.  It’s difficult to guarantee being able to decipher exactly what you are seeing, which allows your imagination to run wild.  When Alice appears during a seance scene, I could physically feel my heart begin racing.  The audience is shown footage from a seance, and it’s framed to where our eyes immediately look towards Alice’s family trying to contact her.  After the scene is over, June discusses reviewing the footage and noticing a “figure.”  Immediately, we are re-shown the footage, and a zoom pushes to the right of the screen and we see a shot of Alice, standing in the hallway the entire time without us noticing.  At this point, I forgot how to breathe.

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Throughout the course of the film, it’s revealed that fifteen-year-old Alice was living a secret life of sexual debauchery before she died and that she had visited a psychic because, in her words: “I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like something bad has happened. It hasn’t reached me yet, but it’s on its way. And it’s getting closer. And I don’t feel ready. I feel like I can’t do anything.” TWIN PEAKS references aside, this is a very depressing thing to come out of the mouth of a fifteen-year-old.  LAKE MUNGO has some genuinely unsettling moments, but it’s scares are sandwiched between bleakness and a level of borderline overwhelming dread.  After it’s revealed that Matty had doctored almost all of the findings of Alice in photos/videos, Matty and the psychic leave for a trip but leave the cameras running at home.  Surprise, surprise, Alice makes an appearance.  Considering Matty wasn’t home to screw with the footage, it forces the family to rewatch and reexamine everything, and a friendly use of push zooms shows that Alice was STILL in all of these photos and videos, in other areas, undetected.  As the family struggles to then piece together the truth about Alice’s final days on earth, they are brought to Lake Mungo, where Alice and her friends had gone on a school trip.  Cell phone footage from a classmate showed Alice burying something while at the lake, and her family is determined to figure out what it was.  Once they’ve uncovered Alice’s burial mound, they find all of her favorite possessions buried in the ground.  Among the items are her favorite bracelet, and her cell phone.  The family looks for hints on her cell phone when they come across a haunting video of a figure coming towards Alice in the darkness.  Alice’s father, who also identified Alice’s corpse, correctly determines that the figure Alice saw was a supernatural doppelganger of Alice’s future dead body.  This moment continues to haunt me to this day.  I second guess everything I have difficulty seeing in the darkness, and LAKE MUNGO is fully responsible.  To me it felt like Alice’s secrets, her demons, if you will, we’re not only catching up to her…but lapping her.

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To call LAKE MUNGO a ghost movie does the story an injustice, because at the core this film is about a family grieving the loss of a child.  I think keeping a sense of lament at the heart of the film kept a constant sadness pumping through each frame, regardless of how scary or unscary something was.  This sadness is what brings me to one of the most questionable moments, the ending.  It is revealed that Alice and June both had parallel stories during their sessions with the psychic, and Alice’s story is presented as a voice-over as June walks through the empty house as the family prepares to move.  June walks into Alice’s room, picks up a cable, walks out of the room, closes the bedroom door, and the camera cuts to a shot of Alice’s father and brother leaving in a car as Alice says, “She’s gone.”  The mother is noticeably NOT in the car when the father and brother leave the home (following a moving truck).  We’ve already been shown that Alice successfully interacted with her own death, which makes us question if she correctly predicted her mother’s death as well.  Was the decision to put June in Alice’s room before moving away intentional only to fit with Alice’s prediction, or did June pick up a cord in Alice’s room because she could no longer deal with the regret of never showing her daughter how much she truly loved her?

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My assessment is that it’s a combination of both.  In one instance, Alice’s parents recall waking up in the middle of the night to see Alice standing at the foot of their bed, which matches a story Alice had with the psychic about standing in their room and her parents not seeing her.  Throughout the entirety of the film, it is June that cannot get over Alice’s death and is the spearhead for continuing the investigations.  Call it mother’s intuition, but June knew Alice was still around, even if only in spirit.  Do I believe June kills herself at the end? Yes, I do.  Earlier in the film, after the photos are debunked, there is a shot of June sitting alone at a table writing a letter as her husband’s voice-over talks about how June was devastated and not willing to let Alice go.  My assessment is that this is June writing her suicide note.  Later on, June’s mother confesses she was never able to give herself wholly to her daughter, June, and that June was unable to do the same with Alice.  I believe June killed herself as a means to give herself over to her daughter.  I could be completely reading way too far into this, but there’s a chance that I’m right.  Regardless, I am grateful that this reveal is not explicit because the whole film is built solely on not being entirely sure of what we’re seeing.  The fact that June’s final moments are spent with the audience the way Alice spent an entire film only reinforces the idea that Alice and June, as they were described, we’re really “quite alike.”

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Ultimately, LAKE MUNGO is not a film that will make you jump out of your seat, but it will creep under your skin and fester.  The film is not meant for those with short attention spans, but rewards those that are willing to witness with an open and unskeptical mindset.  LAKE MUNGO is a beautiful, haunting, and disheartening look at a family dealing with loss and the conflict that develops from the possibility of a loved one lingering long after death.  It’s not a film for everyone but if it’s a film for you, it will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.

Comments
19 Responses to “LAKE MUNGO: THE MOST UNSETTLING MOVIE WHERE NOTHING HAPPENS”
  1. Sam says:

    I’ve read the “June commits suicide” idea before, but each detail is easily explained away. Besides, John Brawley, who was the Cinematographer for the film, replied to the suicide theory just last month:

    “I wouldn’t get too tied up in the cord. It was just something that was left behind in the moving house process.”

    https://johnbrawley.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/lake-mungo-a-picture-never-lies/

    • Sam says:

      Or four days ago. The question was posed on New Year’s Eve, his reply came on the 10th.

    • Jody says:

      I don’t get why people continue saying this. June is in the back left seat. You see her clearly when they are pulling away from the side, then you see the back of her head when they get to the stop sign. Come on people..

  2. Jody says:

    Also, you can see June is sitting in the backseat of the car. Go back and look at the back seat she is sitting behind the father.

  3. L-m Ahouin says:

    I looked at the scene when they leave and she is in the back seat. You can clearly see her especially when they make a stop before turning left. You see her head and she moves. Plus the picture of them 3 in front of the house (and you see alice in the window) was taken the exact same day they left, they are dressed the same….

    • LifeInPink999 says:

      I watched and rewatched no June what you see is the dad, who is in front of the car but when the car takes the turn you have a side vision of him and seems that there is someone else in the back. But he wears white and thats how you know that is him. I really watched it in slow second by second no June. Also whe she takes the cord or cable starts ”the typical dramatic music something is gonna happen” . Family moves on the music in the end should be different like a new start alice is in peace but we her this music that give us a feeling that something is missing, no happy ending. Well Alice and June are together now.
      the picture could be taken any other day or just before she hangeg herself. Or they did it planing other ending who knows… It’s a movie a don’t think that they pay too much attention to it, I also saw them wearing the same in various scenes… plus is a low budget movie.

  4. Tyler says:

    Absolutely brilliant article. Keep up the good work.

  5. brandon says:

    Wtf wait so this is fake ._. I am so confused. I turned it on 10 minutes into it on hbo. So there was no Alice palmer it’s all fake

    • Lesley Branks says:

      People read the movie inscription, Alice Palmer did exist and drowned at Lake Mungo. Her brother did confess that he faked some of the photos of Alice in the house with photoshop. But when we went on a trip with the psychic away from home the cameras were left rolling and captured Alice spirit in the house, so she was there all the time. The brother did not do it to draw attention to himself he was completely heartbroken over the death of his beloved sister and wanted to keep her spirit alive. Alice came home to let her parents and brother know she was there.

      • Giancarlo Boschetti Tres says:

        They are all actors for Christssake, if you google the movie you will find the real name of the actors. Alice is Talia Zucker if I can remember. The story is not even based in real events, it is just pure fiction. That´s why it is a great movie, because it looks so damn real lol

      • seranvali says:

        Lesley, this is fiction. Also, Lake Mungo hasn’t had any water in it for tens of thousands of years. It’s a really important indigenous archaeological site around 50,000 years old. That’s probably why the kids went there. It’d be a great place for a school trip. I’m wondering if the location had anything thing to do with the vision Alice had there.

  6. alex says:

    do not watch this absolute bag of shit, i am absolutely gutted i have wasted over an hour of my to life to witness this shocking movie, it did nothing for me, the story line is non existant, the characters are dull and boring, and absolutely nothing happens.

  7. Chris says:

    Just saw this movie last night (10/28/15) and it absolutely blew me away. I agree with the author of this article: the movie feels like a genuine documentary. The film leaves you with such a feeling of eeriness and fear from uncertainty. One of the better recent horror movies I’ve seen and a refreshing take on the “found-footage” horror genre.

  8. TIM LINKE says:

    WHAT, IN CHRIST’S NAME, INDUCED THE FAMILY OF THIS POOR TEENAGER, TO AGREE TO THIS PSUEDO-PSYCHIC OBSCENITY?

  9. sk c says:

    I don’t know how you could say nothing happened. Finer subtlties totally lost on some clearly.

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