Film Reviews

Lake Mungo (2008) – Blu-ray review

If you’ve never heard of Lake Mungo, then that’s a little bit understandable, if not exactly forgivable. The low-budget, low-key horror movie from writer-director Joel Anderson was an indie darling back at the time of its release in the mid-2000s – 2008 to be exact – but has since has a resurgence and revival as one of the most disquieting and discomposing horror films of the 21st century to date, now released in a glorious new Blu-ray edition from the talented folks at Second Sight Films.

Lake Mungo is a stunningly low-key film that trades in jump scares and schlock for perturbing and upsetting stakes, shot in the style of a documentary that chronicles the aftermath of the tragic drowning of Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker), a typical sixteen-year-old girl in her native South West Australian town of Ararat and the impact of her death upon her family, particularly when secrets about her life begin to emerge.

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The naturalistic style of the film is the cornerstone of Lake Mungo’s enduring appeal – the interviews that construct the majority of the film are a dichotomy of ease and tension at the same time, each actor offering a lesson in raw, subdued performance. As the dearly-departed Alice’s family, the trio of Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, and Martin Sharpe are endlessly watchable as Alice’s mother, father, and brother respectively, but special consideration (from a uniformly-strong cast) must be meted out to Steve Jodrell as an amiable psychic who finds himself more and more involved in the Palmer family’s maelstrom of grief.

Shot by Anderson (and cinematographer John Brawley) in haunting still frames and documentary-style inserts, the world of Lake Mungo is unsettlingly familiar. Bright birthday candles battle against oppressive shadows. Hauntingly-composed images of trees become matte paintings of sinister intent. Golden-hour-coloured family videos are saturated with both nostalgic joy and elegiac sadness. In addition, the film’s continuous usage of technology proves to be a narrative throughline that pays in spades – through video cameras mounted in Alice’s bedroom, to home footage vignettes, to discovered, clandestine videotapes, and to the grainy videos uncovered on a mobile phone that proves the bleak and devastating key to this dark fable. The film seems to be suggesting that we lose and gain something in the process of recording ourselves through digital means, and it amps up the uncanny-valley sensation of realism that Lake Mungo basks and bathes in.

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As reported, both in the coverage surrounding the film, and in several video essays and behind-the-scenes pieces available on this new Blu-ray release of Lake Mungo, a real-life news channel and emergency services team even played out the scenes where the eponymous lake is scoured in the search of Alice’s body, and the tragic news unfolds as part of the evening news. With this level of commitment, it’s no wonder that many viewers, upon going into the film, might have suspected it to be less of a fictitious horror and more of a chilling, supernatural slice of life documentary.

It helps as well that the bonus features for Lake Mungo’s shiny new release are jam-packed with anecdotes and tales from the cast and crew, both in the forms of full-on interviews as well as a pair of audio commentaries available for the film, as well as a collection of insightful video essays and deleted scenes that help flesh out Lake Mungo’s prevalent themes of loss and grief and technology as a tool in viewing and exploring the real world. There’s hours of extra content available for the fan who takes the time (and money) to invest in this edition of this slow, sorrow-riddled film, whether to merely examine how the film was made or to examine something deeper inside themselves as a result (there’s also an entire collection of essays that come with the release).

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These aforementioned themes of ghosts, loss, and technology are so inherently linked to the core of the film – the idea of digital media creating ghosts of our own past selves, that maybe the images we create and view through a digital lens are simultaneously more and less real than our own world – and are so successfully achieved that watching Lake Mungo for the first time or the fifteenth time, is a rewarding experience each time. You may not leave Lake Mungo with a smile on your face, but you’ll leave feeling satisfied and bolstered by the singular vision of a director and the team that helped to bring it to life. This new Blu-ray edition is a triumph, for both Anderson and his team, and for Second Sight Films, and one that horror fans should eagerly explore at the first chance they get.

Lake Mungo is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 7th June from Second Sight Films.

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