Posted by Holly
Grief is a constant process for those who have lost someone in their lives. You may be able to move forward, but you will never quite be the same, and the presence of that grief can follow you around like a haunting. This seems to be a large part of the central theme of Lake Mungo, a film that, at its core, is much more a supernatural drama about grief than a horror film. That is not, however, to say that it is not chilling or scary.
Lake Mungo follows the Palmer family as they struggle with the drowning death of their teenage daughter, Alice. As they are coping with the pain of her sudden death, they begin to see signs that make them wonder if maybe Alice isn’t totally gone. They begin to investigate the strange happenings in their home, and in doing so, begin to uncover more than they intended, about their daughters life – and her death.
Now, if you think there’s a ring of familiarity to this premise, you’re probably right – the central story in this film owes a debt to its predecessor, Twin Peaks. Both center around the mysterious death of a teenage girl, and the events following it which reveal not only the shocking double life of the girl, but also supernatural influence in her death. The way the story plays out, however, makes it feel less like a cheap rip off of a genre classic, and more of a loving homage. The use of Palmer as the family’s surname is certainly no coincidence, as I feel it pays tribute to the distraught family of Laura Palmer. Beyond the premise, I think this film finds its own voice – it’s not Twin Peaks, nor is it really trying to be – it creates its own story around the idea of following the girl’s family through their grief with a very focused lens.
This film presents itself documentary style, which is one of the best narrative choices it makes. It’s not fully found footage, but more along the lines of something like Paranormal Witness. This style necessitates the narrative to be more focused the family’s reflections on events than the cheap jump scares it can get through first person camera work. This way, the small bits of footage that are included throughout are able to be shocking, and justified in why these moments were caught on film. This also keeps the audience on edge when footage is shown, as we become similarly invested in their search for proof of their daughter’s haunting.
There are a number of supernatural elements tackled in this film: ghost footage, doppelgangers, premonition, to name the most prominent. It manages to tie them together relatively well, without feeling too messy or confused. The supernatural angle isn’t even necessarily the only source of scares – in fact, one of the most chilling moments of footage doesn’t include a single supernatural element, but does lead to a big plot revelation.
My own favorite aspect of the film is that the characters in this are very human feeling, and hard not to sympathize with. Watching a mother find out her daughter was having a (potentially coerced) affair with the neighbor, find out that the evidence she has of her daughter’s spiritual presence could have been falsified – these are painful moments that the audience feels with her. Each character has a complicated relationship with Alice, and with their feelings on her death, and it’s interesting to watch these unfold.
As for Alice herself, I think the film tries to take as sympathetic of an approach to her story as they can. The “girl with a double life” can easily turn into the idea that she was once pure and innocent, and “ruined” herself with whatever activities have come to light (in this case sexual activity). That can reinforce a number of very damaging tropes of women in fiction, particularly young women. And for what it’s worth, the reveal of her sex life was intended as shocking for both the audience and her family. However, I feel the treatment was, ultimately, fair.
There is footage shown from the sex tape in question, but I didn’t feel it was gratuitous; only enough is shown for the audience to get a clear understanding of the nature of the tape, and then the film moves on without showing it again. Discussion of the tape does not shame her for being sexual, but rather regret is shown that she felt the need to keep so many secrets, some of which seemed to be causing her pain in the last weeks of her life. Alice is not blamed for the tape, and whether or not the sex depicted was able to be consensual is addressed. Her partners are sought after, because of their part in a sexual encounter with a minor.
In the end, the film leaves the family pondering on whether Alice truly haunted them, or if their discovery of the truth has managed to give her peace. The film leans a bit, especially at the very end, on the reality of the haunting, and perhaps that Alice is not quite so much at peace as they hoped.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Not perfect, but a genuinely eerie homage to a horror classic, with twists and turns of its own.
Scariness level: Good, if not always consistent in scares. There’s certainly a chilling atmosphere through most of it, and uses the slow burn to really earn its bigger moments. By the time you are given Alice’s phone footage from Lake Mungo, you are ready for the big moment of truth. And the film delivers it.
Violence level: Low, though there are a couple of grotesque shots of Alice’s body, after having been in the water for a few days.
Bechdel test: Fails, which is a shame. Alice is a strong presence in the film, but it still takes place entirely post-mortem for her. But if that scene that overlays Alice and her mother’s psychic reading sessions doesn’t break your heart, you are possibly dead inside.
Mako Mori test: The main story being told is Alice’s, even if it is not being told by her. Because it’s being told through other points of view than her own, I’m going to say this pass is iffy. You could possibly also make the argument that the mother’s narrative arc is the acceptance of her daughter’s death, and the ability to move forward.