This week we’re getting down to some seriously spooky business. We will be examining the Australian horror mystery Lake Mungo by writer/director Joel Anderson, which was part of the After Dark Horrorfest 4 roster. Movies included in the festival were also referred to as “8 Films to Die For.”
Late to the Party features a lot of well-known classics, but I’m going to assume this film has flown under the radar for many of you like it did for me. If you’d like to avoid spoilers, then I highly recommend checking it out first, and coming back to hear my thoughts on it. If you’re into minimalist, slow-paced horror like The Blair Witch Project and The Blackwell Ghost, then Lake Mungo could be your cup of creepy tea.
To my surprise, Lake Mungo turned out to be a faux documentary, complete with interviews, allegedly paranormal raw footage, and hypnotic, unsettling B-roll of the Palmer house. The documentary is about a 15-year-old girl named Alice Palmer who tragically drowns at a dam in Ararat, Australia during a day trip with her mother (June), father (Russell), and brother (Mathew).
Shortly after her death, Alice’s grieving family claims they began to experience strange, supernatural events around their home. Further investigation into Alice’s death begins to unearth many shocking revelations, turning what seemed to be a simple tragic accident into more than meets the eye.
What follows is a paranormal mystery with many twists, turns, and a story that has much more going on beneath the surface. On paper, this film sounds like your typical supernatural horror premise. A family coping with their daughter’s untimely death. Creepy spirit photography. A séance conducted by a sympathetic psychic. A scandalous conspiracy. But don’t let that fool you…
Lake Mungo makes you think it’s telling you a derivative story of a girl’s double life that she’s trying to reveal from beyond the grave. To be fair, even if this is all there was to Lake Mungo, it would have done it exceptionally well.
However, it isn’t until the end (and possibly multiple viewings) that you actually realize this cleverly edited mockumentary has a completely different story hiding beneath the surface. Anderson puts many of the answers right in front of you throughout the entire film, but doesn’t let the audience know it until the final moments.
The documentary starts out as a simple, tragic accident followed by to what appears to be Alice haunting her family. June reaches out to psychic Ray Kemeney to conduct a hypnosis session with her, followed up by a séance with her family. Compelling photographic evidence would suggest Alice’s spirit is with them.
Halfway through the film, Anderson pulls the rug out from under us and we discover all the photographic evidence was a ruse by Alice’s brother Mathew to bring his mother closure. This gut-punch felt much like The Conjuring 2 when (*Spoilers) they discover damning evidence that Janet Hodgson likely fabricated her possession.
It seems to be case closed on Alice’s haunting. However, further plot twists reveal more of Alice’s double life, and reopen the possibility of something paranormal happening.
We eventually find out psychic Ray Kemeney had also conducted hypnosis sessions with Alice months prior to her death, but kept this from her family to respect Alice’s confidentiality. Alice seemed convinced something terrible was going to happen to her. Her old boyfriend then comes forward with a video of Alice and her friends at Lake Mungo, which leads them to find Alice’s lost phone with a terrifying video on it.
In the video, Alice is walking alone in the dark at Lake Mungo. Suddenly the shape of a figure appears in the pitch black coming towards her. It isn’t until the person is only a few feet away that we are met with an image that will send ice through your veins. The figure is the bloated, pallid corpse of Alice. Identical to the one pulled from the dam weeks later. There’s no rational explanation for this, as the video was taken long before Alice died, by, none other than, Alice herself.
After the family sees the video from Lake Mungo, they finally feel a real sense of closure from Alice’s death. June agrees to meet for one last hypnosis session with Ray. It is in this moment that the editors finally drop a giant bomb on you.
Alice and June’s hypnosis sessions with Ray, which were held separately, months apart, without each other knowing…were mirroring one another. Like a conversation taking place between two people standing in different rooms on completely different days.
The film closes with the Palmers making peace with Alice’s death, and moving out of their old house where all the activity occurred. We then see the family take one last picture in front of the house before leaving, with the figure of Alice standing in the window behind them.
The editors spell out the final mirroring hypnosis sessions for us in the end, which occur before and after Alice’s death. If you look back on earlier parts of the film, you’ll realize there were other mirroring events before and after Alice died. These scenes take place too far apart in the movie for audiences to put the pieces together right away. Much like the doctored spirit photography of Alice seen during the credits, the truth has been hiding in plain sight all along.
So, what happened that night at Lake Mungo when Alice saw the dead version of herself? It seems this was the moment when these mirroring events between Alice’s life and death collided. Alice’s voice-over recording spoke of fear that something bad has happened to her, and is going to happen to her.
This was indeed a premonition of her death. And what is a premonition, but the present momentarily meeting with the future. The film examines how death plagues the living from the way it looms imminently on the horizon to how it leaves us with with grief after it occurs. It seems from the hypnosis sessions and the final shot of Alice in the window, death may not come with abrupt finality, for the dead or their loved ones.
Lake Mungo feels like a good ghost story being told to you as a first-hand, personal account from someone you trust. The kind that makes tears well up in your eyes, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The actors convincingly tell the tale with a shakiness in their voice, a pained smile on their lips, and sincerity in their eyes. The type of sincerity that if someone close to you was telling the same extraordinary story, you may, for a moment, actually believe them.
Lake Mungo is a film that will stick with you long after the credits roll, and demand multiple viewings. It’s a poignant, unnerving a hidden gem. If you like slow-moving, creepy, and clever, then I hope you checked this film out before reading this spoiler-riddled review.