Sunday, October 07, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #11: LAKE MUNGO (2008)

The Story: Australian mockumentary about the life, death and afterlife of a drowned teenage girl.

Expectations: This film was distributed in the U.S. as part of the After Dark Film Fest.  In my opinion, After Dark has a spotty track record, but the reviews for LAKE MUNGO suggested a solid ghost story.  That was enough for me.

Reaction: When it comes to ghost stories, believability is the biggest obstacle.  In recent years quite a few filmmakers have used a documentary format to make it easier for audiences to suspend their disbelief.  The most popular format is "found footage," used to great effect by the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series.  The filmmakers of THE FOURTH KIND (2009) went a different route, juxtaposing faked documentary footage with dramatic reenactments.  LAKE MUNGO demonstrates another approach.  It uses documentary-style interviews and found footage / photos, but eschews dramatic reenactments in favor of more impressionistic filler (stylized POV shots, time-lapsed environmental b-roll, etc).  This is nothing new -- it's what the lower-budget TV docudramas have been doing for years -- but this film shows how effective it can really be.

Like the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY series, LAKE MUNGO demonstrates that sound design can make all the difference.   Hearing, rather than seeing, is the real key to suspense here.  The slow-building drones and relative silence become emotionally overwhelming, conveying not only a sense of fear, but also a sense of inconsolable sadness -- the grieving, desperation and vacancy in the lives of people who have lost a loved one to circumstances they can't fully accept.  Because of the sound design, we know that something is haunting the main characters... but what?

Like the TV series TWIN PEAKS, which revolved around a central figure (Laura Palmer) who was physically present only in flashback but spiritually present in practically every scene, LAKE MUNGO is all about what's missing.  The emotional thrust of the narrative follows the stages of grief, from denial to depression.  Because it's a horror movie, however, it stops short of acceptance.  The characters can't accept the reality of death because, as the mysteries of Alice Palmer's life and death unravel, it becomes more and more clear that death is not the end.  Her physical life was a kind of living end and her death may have led to something something worse.  In both cases, Alice was alone in the dark... and that's where the filmmakers leave us as well.

The final revelation in the film is one that left me feeling genuinely uneasy, because it delves so deep into the unknown.  For me, at least, the film truly tapped into primal fears.  LAKE MUNGO isn't a rollercoaster ride that leaves you feeling exhilirated.  It's a slow descent.  The fear seeps into your pores, and you don't realize you've been infected until the movie is over and you're sitting alone in the dark.  I know it won't work as well for all viewers -- some people won't see past the simplicity of the format -- but for my money this is the best kind of campfire storytelling. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: Taken out of context, no single moment in the film will be entirely effective.  It's all about the gradual accumulation of dread.  If a viewer can surrender to the filmmaker's spell, however, there are quite a few moments guaranteed to raise goosebumps... and the final revelation will likely stay with you long after the movie is over.

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