Lake Mungo is a 2008 Australian mockumentary-style psychological horror film written and directed by Joel Anderson and starring Talia Zucker and Martin Sharpe. It employs a docufiction format using actors in place of interviewees to tell the story of a family trying to come to terms with the drowning death of their daughter and the potentially supernatural events they experience after her death. The film received critical acclaim during its limited release.
Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns while swimming with her family at a dam in Ararat, Australia. Following the tragedy, her teenaged brother Mathew sets up video cameras around the house to record what seem to be images of Alice's ghost appearing in the family home. They consult psychic Ray Kemeny for insight on the apparent haunting, but he is unable to provide explanation. It is discovered that Mathew was actually setting up the "sightings" of his dead sister to give the family reason to exhume her body and give his mother closure. However, upon closer review, one of the hoax videos captures Alice's bedroom being searched by Brett, a neighbor for whom she had worked as a babysitter. After her own search of the bedroom, Alice's mother June finds a hidden videotape showing Alice in a sexual encounter with Brett and his wife.
Ray admits that Alice had met with him several months before her death and had told him she was having dreams about drowning, being dead and her mother not being able to see or help her. Alice's boyfriend comes forward with cell phone footage showing Alice during a school trip to Lake Mungo, in which she frantically digs into the sand at the base of a tree with her bare hands. The Palmers travel to Lake Mungo and find the tree, where they dig up her cell phone. The footage on the phone shows her walking down the shoreline of the lake and encountering a ghostly, corpse-like doppelgänger of herself, with a bloated and disfigured face, appearing just as her body had been found in the lake.
The Palmers move out of their house, feeling that Alice had simply wanted them to know who she really was and what she had seen. The family now believes that the haunting has ended and Alice's ghost has moved on. The film ends with a family photo of the Palmers on the front lawn of their house as the figure of Alice watches from the window. The credits are inter-cut with prior footage, revealing several sightings of Alice's ghost throughout the film that had gone unnoticed. After the credits have rolled, a figure that may be Alice or her doppelgänger stands at Lake Mungo in the darkness while lightning strikes.
- Rosie Traynor as June Palmer
- David Pledger as Russell Palmer
- Martin Sharpe as Mathew Palmer
- Talia Zucker as Alice Palmer
- Steve Jodrell as Ray Kemeny
- Tania Lentini as Georgie Ritter
- Cameron Strachan as Leith Ritter
- Judith Roberts as Iris Long
- Robin Cuming as Garrett Long
- Marcus Costello as Jason Whittle
- Chloe Armstrong as Kim Whittle
- Carole Patullo as Sandy Drouin
- Tamara Donnellan as Marissa Toohey
- Scott Terrill as Brett Toohey
- Joel Anderson as Interviewer (uncredited)
The bulk of the film was written in 2005. Anderson was finding it difficult to acquire funding for another script he had written which required a much larger budget. After discussions with what would be future collaborators on Lake Mungo, Anderson decided to write a fictional documentary-style story that could be filmed on a low budget. When asked what inspired to create the script, Anderson has said, "I don't think it's a supernatural thriller. I think it's meant to be an exploration of grief." He also cited a curiosity as to how "technology is used to record people's lives and sort of tracks memories, and how technology mediates a lot of our experiences". Initial funding was attained through private investors, after which the production team approached the Australian government film funding body Screen Australia and received further funding. During casting, low profile actors were sought in an effort to maintain an authentic documentary feel. The film was shot over a period of approximately five weeks using multiple film and video formats. There was no written dialogue in the script, only the outline of the story, so the actors were tasked with improvising their scenes. Anderson also served as the offscreen interviewer in the many documentary style interview scenes that compose the film, although his role was left uncredited.
The film was screened in Austin, Texas (USA) at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March 2009. In Australia, the film was at the Travelling Film Festival Wagga Wagga on 13 March 2009. Lake Mungo was screened in the United Kingdom on 17 March at the Barbican London Australian Film Festival. The film ran in the United States on 21 January 2010 at After Dark Horrorfest with distribution from Lionsgate and After Dark Films.
Very early, before the film was officially released, Variety named it an "ambitious, restrained and well-mounted mockumentary", and praised the score, but critiqued other production elements, such as bad lighting and apparent lack of scripted dialogue.
Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile said that "this superbly constructed and executed film gets everything right, to the smallest detail, as it draws us into the imagined scenario." Simon Foster of the SBS declared the film "one of the most impressive debut films from this country in many years" and further commented that "the young director has created a nerve-rattler unlike any film the Australian industry has produced." In a review for Hollywood Reporter, Megan Lehmann echoed these sentiments, noting the film's "compelling slow build", "surreal atmospherics", and "restrained soundtrack that works on a primal level", that "cleaves close to reality". She heralded its fusion of supernatural elements with substantive themes on family and loss, concluding that "this ambitious exploration of death and its aftershocks will reward more discerning genre fans".
Several other critics agreed about its style and thematic depth. Thomas Caldwell conceded that "the entire film may be a construct", but found that "the skilled direction, writing and acting give Lake Mungo a spooky authenticity", awarding it ✦✦✦½✧ (3 1/2 stars out of 5). Writing on Quickflix, Simon Miraudo evaluated the movie to be "a mournful, dreamlike examination of the hole left in the heart of a family after a death", and awarded it 5 stars.
Chris Stuckmann called the film "an underappreciated, underseen gem" in a YouTube review published in October of 2019. Ryan Hollinger published a video in 2018 entitled "The Saddest Horror Movie You've Never Seen" which had helped promulgate the film to a wider audience.
The movie was nominated as Best Horror Movie at the in 2010.
- "Australian Films at the Australian Box Office", Film Victoria Archived 9 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine accessed 13 November 2012
- Andrew L Urban, "ANDERSON, JOEL – LAKE MUNGO", Urban Cinefile, 30 July 2009 Archived 13 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine accessed 11 November 2012
- Catiana, John. "An Interview with Joel Anderson". Archived from the original on 5 October 2015. Retrieved 2 October 2015.
- "SXSW Review: Tex Takes a Trip to 'Lake Mungo'". Bloody Disgusting. 24 March 2009. Retrieved 22 April 2010.
- Sydney Film Festival - TFF in Wagga Wagga Archived 14 September 2009 at the Wayback Machine
- "Lake Mungo (15*)". Barbican. Retrieved 22 April 2010.
- "2010 horror movie preview: Lionsgate/After Dark Films". Bloody Disgusting. 28 December 2009. Retrieved 22 April 2010.
- "Lake Mungo". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 25 July 2020.
- Edwards, Russell (8 July 2008). "Lake Mungo". Variety. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
- Urban, Andrew L. "Lake Mungo Review". Urban Cinefile. Retrieved 25 October 2014.
- Foster, Simon. "SBS Lake Mungo Review". SBS Movies. Retrieved 2 October 2015.
- "Lake Mungo -- Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
- "Film review – Lake Mungo (2008)". Cinema Autopsy. 9 August 2009. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
- "Lake Mungo Review". Quickflix. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
- Lake Mungo - Movie Review. Retrieved 26 October 2019 – via YouTube.
- The Saddest Horror Movie You've Never Seen. Retrieved 26 October 2019 – via YouTube.