I haven’t been this creeped out by a movie in a while…and I LOVE it!
I watched Lake Mungo like you should watch any ghost story—in the dark, late at night. And when it was over I had to turn on all of the lights on my way to the bathroom for fear of seeing something spooky in the shadows. If that’s not an endorsement for a scary movie, I don’t know what is.
The movie is presented as a documentary, and it works really well even by the standards of a documentary. Some fake documentaries (like The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which I love despite its flaws) use the format simply to squeeze more story out of their small budget. And the “found footage” subgenre is the prime example of this budgetary motivation in that it makes no attempt to approximate a real documentary-style narrative; it simply presents the raw footage to thrill or scare the viewer.
By contrast, real documentaries have a narrative voice, an author who “speaks” to us, sometimes literally using voice-over narration (like Michael Moore), and sometimes figuratively using editing and structure. And so, real documentaries aspire to use the events they are documenting to say something important about life, beyond just reporting on an interesting set of events.
Now I’m all for low budget filmmakers using all the tricks of film to get their stories to the screen. But when a movie can also transcend those tricks, I appreciate the movie-watching experience on a much deeper level. If this were a true documentary, I’d be tempted to put Lake Mungo right next to some of my favorite recent docs like Man On Wire and Exit Through the Gift Shop because I believe it, like those movies, says something important about life.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
It’s unfortunate that Lake Mungo is being compared to Paranormal Activity (but understandable given some superficial similarities) because there’s so much more to this movie than a scary ghost story.
That said, it works very well as a scary movie, too—much better than Paranormal Activity, in my opinion. The filmmakers built the spookiness slowly but effectively in the first act, and then they cleverly lulled me into a feeling of safety for most of the second act, until they finally dropped the bottom out from under me again and I realized just how freakin’ scared I really was.
I think horror is like comedy. Some comedies are just a bunch of jokes strung together over the course of 90 minutes, and others are stories that breathe humor from beginning to end. And while it’s fun to be frightened by a series of effective jump scares, the fear evaporates quickly once the credits roll. As strange as it might sound, I want that feeling of fear to last longer.
My favorite movies—in any genre—are the ones that stay with me long after the movie has ended. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Lake Mungo one of my favorites just yet, but it has affected me. And I don’t think that would be the case if the ghost story wasn’t complemented so well by the deeper message the film presents as a documentary.
Because I’ve had to deal with the recent death of some people very close to me, combined with the sobering fact of turning 40, the spectre of death has been my frequent mental companion for the past year or so. And what I’m learning about life—and what I believe is the deeper message in Lake Mungo—is that as tragic as it is to see a loved one die, it’s all the more tragic to spend your life haunted by your own impending death.