Lake Mungo is a 2008 independent horror movie from Australia. Unfolding as a documentary, the film uses a series of interviews, still images, and home movie footage to tell the story of a normal family trying to deal with the drowning death of their daughter. As the movie hits the first of its several twists, the viewers are left unsure about whether or not anything supernatural is actually happening. The trailer is below, and then check out our review and let us know if you agree in the comments.
Jack: Lake Mungo. This 2008 low budget Australian horror movie garnered crazy critical acclaim. To this day, it still has a 93% critic’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie is in the style of a documentary, a mock-documentary™ if you will. From the very beginning, it is obvious that the filmmakers did a terrific job replicating the documentary style.
Jake: Is the trademark really necessary, here? Especially when you use it wrong. It’s called a mockumentary, you illiterate tv people, as horror icon “little Mikey” would say. But jokes aside, Jack’s right. The movie is a filmed like a documentary, and does a damn fine job of it.
Jack: I think you’ll find that mock-documentary™ rolls off the tongue a lot more smoothly. The movie is about a strange and tragic series of events surrounding an otherwise normal family. We learn pretty early on that the 16-year-old daughter, Alice, drowned in a nearby lake. Incidentally not in Lake Mungo. They did not make that clear. Why in God’s green shit would you have a movie named after a lake, the main plot of which is that a girl drowned in a lake, but not have the drowning lake be the titular lake? Or if you’re going to do that, at least make it evident, which they could have. There’s plenty of plot by cue-card exposition in the early part of the movie and while that’s typical in documentaries, it doesn’t make them any more enjoyable.
Jake: Cue cards… Preach. There is a reason it’s called Lake Mungo, though. It’s sort of a major plot point. But we will get to that later. Don’t let Jack get you fooled, it wasn’t confusing.
Jack: In any case, this movie’s strongest selling point to me stood out early: The acting. The acting throughout is near flawless. All the characters truly feel real, and exactly like they would were this a real documentary. They seem a little uncomfortable to be in front of a camera, and they seem frightened and confused by the events, but also like they’ve had enough time pass to make jokes about them and not have the events be all-consuming in their minds.
Jake: Yeah, you have to give major credit to the writing and the way this movie was filmed because it would have been really easy to overdo a movie about a family going through a paranormal investigation relating to a deceased loved one. But they don’t overdo it. Not by a mile. In fact, this movie is paced more like something you’d watch in social studies class. And that’s not an indictment.
Jack: It should be a little bit on an indictment. But I’ll get to my issues with the format later. You forget it’s not a real documentary. It makes the erie early scenes feel quite creepy. And I also wasn’t left wondering why particular scenes were in the movie: documentaries need to fill space and do so with odd little vignettes all the time; so it feels normal when Mungo does it. For instance, the scene where the family had to drive home in reverse from the lake (still not Lake fucking Mungo). In a narrative horror movie, I would have been left looking for the point of that scene, or wondering what it was setting up for later, but for Mungo, that scene just got to be a weird little thing; kind of odd, and just a little unsettling. That’s what this movie is best at, establishing a general air of unease.
Jake: I think that’s a big reason why this movie is so effective at getting under your skin. It feels so organic and realistic that the creepy scenes feel genuinely creepy, not creepy like you are watching a movie. As things are happening on screen, those little, mundane moments all help build a pretty effective atmosphere.
Jack: But the documentary style comes at a cost. Things are slow to get going. Like, Elvis taking a shit in his later years slow. It’s a little bit less engrossing than say a found-footage movie, and much less engrossing than a narrative horror movie. This is because when those other kinds of movies suck you in, you forget you’re watching a movie at all. Mungo on the other hand, while much better at immersing me in its world and making me forget I am watching a horror movie, didn’t suck me into a world with hauntings. Instead it sucked me into a world of watching a documentary. And I don’t need to be sucked into that world, I find myself in that world almost every night as my Netflix queue can attest (ladies). So yeah, the movie was more immersive than almost any other in that I completely forgot this wasn’t a real documentary, but it had a very low ceiling on immersion, because due to the documentary style, I was never going to forget that I was watching a movie.
Jake: I don’t know if I agree with this. It’s kind of hard to compare a movie filmed in a narrative way with a documentary. They are immersive. While a traditional narrative might pull you into the world and serve as an escape, I think the ability of the documentary style to tell a story with information sets this movie up for success in a big way. It’s not an escape at all, but you find yourself trying to piece together bit by bit along with the family as more information is presented.
Jack: Fair enough, although I think this movie would have fallen flat if the writing hadn’t been just stellar. But it was. Well, I say writing, but all the lines were improvised rather than scripted. But still, the first reveal that the brother faked the ghost images, then the second reveal that there’s another figure in the footage that isn’t a ghost but the neighbor, were both so great. Are you kidding me?! None of the twists feels forced. Shayamalan, take note you son of a b-word. Not every twist has to be a paradigm-defining shift emphasized by swelling music in the background; sometimes the most effective twists happen quietly half-way through the movie.
Jake: To be honest, that whole plot element has not sat well with me. It’s really bizarre and I haven’t been able to figure out what it adds, aside from building Alice as a confused and/or angsty character with secrets. Cynical me has a hard time feeling bad for a 16 year old who seems to be willingly engaging in a weird ass sexual affair with an old married couple, but hey people are into a shit load of different shit.
Jack: I’m not sure, it felt predatory to me. As a side note, those cameras the brother set up were neither small nor subtle. Where was that pervert’s head at that he didn’t shut them off or move them or something? Oh yeah, trying to recover the most damning possible evidence of sex crime since those tapes allegedly showing R. Kelly peeing on that teenager that one time. Remember that? Why don’t we talk about that as a society more? Did we like Ignition (Remix) that much? Also, the fuck happens in Australia that the adult couple banged a teenager and videotaped it, but then their only punishment was her dad was all “I wanna hit ‘im.” Really? Although I guess R. Kelly isn’t in jail either, so . . . whoops?
Jake: R. Kelly did what? No way. Couldn’t have. We sweep things under the rug, Jack. It’s what we do. Talking about things is not the answer. You gotta bury them deep. As deep as you can.
Jack: Something else that was great about the writing was the psychic character. So many little touches with that guy were great. Even by the end of the movie, I don’t know if he’s a fraud and knows it, is a fraud but believes in his abilities, or is just an actual psychic. The movie throws clues in every direction, but somehow they don’t feel like they’re there just to throw you off. They just feel natural. Like him not using his real name for his psychic practice. What is that about? Evidence that he knows he’s scamming people? Just a business decision by someone who genuinely wants to help? The movie doesn’t answer the question, and consequently it just seems like a weird quirk the documentary makers decided to include because it provides more information.
Jake: Yep, totally agree. And that’s the main goal. Regardless of what that dude’s real deal is, he serves the purpose of helping piece together the puzzle for the audience, or so we think. Until the movie just decides to flip us all the bird and turn everything on its head…
Jack: A’ight, enough of this pussy-dicking around, we're burying the lead here. The big payoff scene. The jump scare. And I’m hesitant to call it a jump scare because of all the negative connotations that accompany that term. Really though there’s nothing else you could call it because it actually is a jump scare, just the single greatest one I have ever seen. This is where the movie’s slow pacing pays off in a huge way. You don’t expect it at all. And hot damn is it scary. Proper scary.
Jake: Okay. To fill the readers in that got lost in Jack’s transition just now, seamless though it was, it is discovered over the course of the movie that Alice had been meeting with the psychic about having recurring dreams about drowning. On a school trip to Lake Mungo (there’s the titular lake in action, Jack, you fascist), something had happened and Alice had buried her cellphone in the dried lakebed. The family tracks it down and upon recovering the phone, finds video taken by Alice while on the trip where she encounters herself, only in drowned form. Bloated and decaying.
Jack: Yeah yeah yeah, the readers followed me. Now let’s get to talking about it! It was great!
Jake: Yep. This is why the movie is called Lake Mungo, by the way. Because that is where shit went down. To the earlier point, the movie doesn’t make it well known, but wow. It’s an absolute curveball. The film is so well written and executed to this point that, as the viewer, you are not expecting anything. The main issue with horror movies, especially relating to jump scares, is that they feel cheap and contrived. This one was actually unexpected. It was executed in an interesting way too, because the frantic scene that leads up to it gives a false sense that the climax has already arrived. You fall for it when you watch for the first time, and that’s a huge fucking mistake because holy shit… If I made a list of the scariest moments I have seen in horror films, it would honestly be difficult to keep this one from a little Aussie indie film too far from the top of that list.
Jack: Hard to argue with that. It does bring up an interesting point though. The scare scene was so effective because of the pacing of the rest of the movie, but the pacing of the rest of the movie made me not enjoy that part very much. Is it worth making the rest of your movie boring for one hugely effective payoff scare? (This one’s not a rhetorical question like the tradeoff from Unfriended). This thought made me realize that I intellectually like this movie a lot more than I actually enjoyed the experience of watching it. Maybe that explains why the critics’ rating is 93%, but the audience rating is in the low 60’s.
Jake: It is an interesting point. I really enjoyed the whole film, personally. It exists as basically two entities in my mind, though. Pre jump scare and post jump scare. Before the jump scare, I liked the slow, almost hollow feel the movie developed as it churned along. It’s speed made the creepy moments linger just a bit longer than most movies, and it does a pretty good job at setting the mood. Was I edge of my seat? Hell no. Was I tuning out? Also no. Except for when I needed more beer. Post jump scare, that same empty feeling persists, but it was accompanied by the low key dread that whatever the hell had happened before was going to manifest again. And you don’t want it to because here’s why - the subject matter of the movie and the source of the jump scare is actually a terrifying ass concept for once. I think that’s the big takeaway for me.
Jack: I’m actually unsure how to resolve my feelings regarding the documentary style. On the one hand it was necessary to Mungo, and the engine that let this movie be effective in the ways that it was, but on the other hand, it limited how engrossing this movie could ultimately be, in that I don’t know that anyone could make a better movie in this style, I just think the style lowered the potential. But what did it lower it from if I’ve already said it was the engine that lets this whole thing go? Alright, now I’m just babbling like a madman and thinking in circles. Jake, say something witty so the readers don’t go away.
Jake: We don't have any fucking readers, guy. But now we’re just going round and round on the issue. In seriousness though, I’m in favor the documentary style. Do I think the majority of the movie was paced in such a way that it was hard to keep my mind completely locked on what was happening? Yes. Just like pretty much any documentary. Do I think the story could have been better told? Sure. It’s not perfect. But do I think it would have been better executed in a different format? Nope. I think that the pacing and relative nothingness around that central, gloriously sadistic moment and the resulting change in the mood you have while viewing the rest of the movie is pretty high praise for what a film can do to be effective in a non-traditional way.
Jack: The end of Mungo is also fantastic, which is refreshing in the horror world. Interposing the mom’s sessions with the psychic with Alice’s gave me chills. Not sure that it added anything to the story overall, but it sure was cool.
Jake: It ended on a creepy note, for sure. I liked how it also reveals that the hoax pictures by her brother may not have been hoaxes after all, and has the balls to do it in the goddamned credits. Bravo.
Jake: Nope. Don't do that. You've locked us in to your goddamned "segment." So go ahead and give us "Jack's stupid illegible horseshit of the day."
Jack: I love that you're on board now buddy, even if you do continue to butcher the name. Unfortunately, I . . . don't have one for this week. Could read all my notes.
Jake: Well what the fuck?! Last week, you just arbitrarily changed it to a note you liked, so hit us with that before I hit you with something more fist-shaped.
Jack: Nah, none of those either. It's gotta be organic, you nah'meen?
Jake: Motherfucker. You are the worst person I know. Ratings. Now.
For 1, think of how Mrs. Ochmonek would rate the strange goings on across the street:
For 10, think of how Mac and Tosh would rate being polite to one-another:
Jack: 9 - this story is so damn good. The double fakeout with the images in the video footage, but then faked out again if you watch the images in the credits?! So cool.
Jake: 9 - There is a lot going on here. Agree with Jack, so I will add that the subject matter is genuinely and beyond adequately, creepy. Premonitions of your own death manifesting in such a grotesque form is a terrifying concept. Alice was being haunted by herself. It’s sort of mind bending.
WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION
Jack: 4 - Again, this is very complicated for me. It fully engrossed me in the documentary, but I can only get so engrossed by a documentary.
Jake: 6 - This film pushed the documentary format it chose to use right to the limit.
Jack: 4 - Sure, that one scene is fucking terrifying, but overall the movie just isn’t scary.
Jake: 7 - Scary? No. But this was one unsettling movie. It stuck with me a lot longer than most after the credits rolled.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF)
Jack: 6 - The blurry footage and zooming in on pictures are as effective as they could be. Annoying that it relied entirely on ‘found footage’ to establish anything even slightly paranormal, but it did it well.
Jake: 6 - Not a lot going on here. Played mostly into the film’s hand due to the chosen format, and did a decently effective job of helping piece together information and create the mood.
Jack: 6 - This feels like it’s too high. I guess because I intellectually really like this movie. Enjoyment in the moment, it gets a 4. I’m allowed to rate like this right?
Jake: 7 - No, you aren’t. In any case, this is a flick that’s worth checking out if you are at all interested in the jump scare we slathered with praise. Otherwise, unless you are a huge fan of the mockumentary style or found footage, then this isn’t a must see.