The Call Is Coming From Inside the Camera
By Kai Perrignon
In Lake Mungo, the low-budget Australian mockumentary that has quietly built up a cult following since its release in 2008, a significant amount of time is spent squinting at blurry shapes in grainy photos and videos, looking for ghosts that may or may not be there.
The film is upfront about what it expects of the audience. It opens with a somber montage of old, ostensibly supernatural pictures, under investigation by a close and panning camera, accompanied by a procession of voiceovers, beginning with Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker): 16 years old, popular, a promising future ahead of her, and dead before the film starts.
Worse, she saw it coming: “I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like something bad has happened. It hasn’t reached me yet, but it’s on its way.” The next voice belongs to her boyfriend, who is a little less metaphysical: “I don’t understand how it helps people… deal with their loss… by making up stories about ghosts, or whatever.”
Death, permanent or not, is an invisible scene partner through all of Lake Mungo, and that plaintive acceptance of its constant weight informs the early stretches of the film, which are tuned into the grief of Alice’s family: mother June (Rosie Traynor), father Russel (David Pledger), and brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe).
Alice’s death was an unquestioned accident—she drowned while swimming at a dam, in the nondescript rural Victorian town of Ararat. Why this story has become the subject of a “documentary” is revealed gradually, as writer/director Joel Anderson’s first and only feature film emphasizes the impact of Alice’s sudden passing in simple but affecting style. The quiet talking-head interviews, found footage, and ambient B-roll feel distanced—an at-times affectless aesthetic ripped straight from late-night regional Australian TV—but the emotions are direct; the interviews were shot on warm celluloid by John Brawley and improvised by the actors, who sell their characters’ pain without any grand theatrics. Traynor, in particular, has a wonderfully open face that betrays June’s yearning even when she smiles.
Lake Mungo becomes a horror movie the moment one of its characters picks up a camera.
Lake Mungo becomes a horror movie the moment one of its characters picks up a camera. First up is Matthew, who channels his grief into a renewed interest in photography; it doesn’t take long for him to capture an image of Alice, seemingly lingering in the backyard. Next is a friendly local who sees a blurry feminine figure on the shore of the dam in a picture taken months after the tragedy. These two sightings prompt such confusion that Alice’s family ask the police to exhume her body; all they get is another look at her.
But they keep going. Matthew sets up video cameras around the house in a hunt for more paranormal activity, the family consort with a local psychic (played by director Steve Jodrell) who films his sessions. Amateur videos and photos are repeatedly scrutinized.
A camera is a tool like any other, devoid of intrinsic virtue or objectivity, but all the characters in Lake Mungo seem convinced by its apparent cathartic, healing ability, even though the abject videos are so lo-res. Or, maybe it’s because of that fact; a cluster of janky pixels against a dark background can resemble just about anything, given sufficient desire. The characters film to search for truth, to prove theories, to re-live the past, and to interpret the confusing and despairing universe around them—and Anderson seems deeply suspicious of their reliance upon recording devices and screens.
The attempt to use technology to shore up memory has been warily eyed before (see 2021’s Hugh Jackman-starring ’90s throwback Reminiscence for a recent example), but Lake Mungo’s found footage lineage brings new dimensions to this familiar techno-anxiety. The movie is deeply concerned with the allure of the HDCAM, and the question, directed at the found footage genre as a whole, of why humans are so often filming in the face of immediate danger. Unlike Cloverfield (2008) or The McPherson Tape (1989), for example, no one in Lake Mungo hits that record button when they’re seconds from decapitation. But Anderson’s characters cannot resist the urge to keep filming and witnessing nightmarish scenes—that’s the camera and its siren call.
This cautionary lesson is eventually learned in Lake Mungo, but it takes a betrayal. It is only when Matthew confesses to having faked the posthumous Alice sightings that the Palmer family begin to lose faith. The motivation for his trickery is never fully elucidated (June has guesses but Matthew himself doesn’t seem to really know), nor are the reasons why the family continue to watch the videos regardless. It is during one of these endless re-watch sessions that June inadvertently stumbles upon another, even more sinister discovery: a tape of Alice engaged in a queasy, age-inappropriate sexual encounter. This tape is so baldly incriminating that the abusers’ choice to turn the camera on in the first place boggles the mind, provoking an existentially discomfiting question: what if the cameras themselves are haunted?
In Lake Mungo, that diabolical magnetism beckons the Palmers onward, even after Matthew’s deception is exposed. The family receive a video from one of Alice’s friends, shot during a school trip, in which their daughter can be seen burying a plastic bag in the eponymous dried lakebed in west New South Wales—an ancient landscape that recalls the dried, pitted skin of a naturally mummified corpse. The family drive out to the lake and excavate the bag, in which they find various mementos (a favorite necklace, an old watch) and her Nokia 6600 phone. The video contained on that phone is so terrifying—so inexplicable—that it has haunted this writer for many years. The unambiguous wrongness of the graphic image hits especially hard so late in the otherwise ambivalent movie. It cleanly severs the family’s obsession with Alice’s death and jumpstarts their emotional recovery. Confronted with a reality-defying image, their choice to move onward seems the only way to maintain sanity.
The remaining scenes suggest the Palmers have found a strange sense of closure and are ready to continue with their lives, but the peaceful mood doesn’t last—in the film’s final moments, a succession of dramatic zooms suggest hunger for another string to pull, another lead to chase, another reason to rewind. Anderson teases the audience, almost begging them to re-watch his movie and pore over scenes, looking for more ghosts. Little good has come from this task over the previous 80 minutes, but the viewfinder beckons.
Kai Perrignon is a writer, programmer, and general person based in Melbourne. His Twitter is @memoryendowment and his Letterboxd is his name.