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The Palmers are a family struggling to cope with a devastating loss – the death of their 16-year-old daughter Alice in a drowning accident. The little family – mom, dad, and older brother – can’t quite put the pieces back together in the months after her body was found. Mother June refuses to accept that her daughter is really dead, rolling over the what ifs and maybes until she’s nearly incapacitated by grief. Matthew, her older brother, starts withdrawing into himself, finding small comfort in his photography hobby. And dad Russell – he’s trying to hold it all together.

(The following review of Lake Mungo originally appeared in our first 31 Days of Halloween series, on October 15, 2012.)

Cover of Lake Mungo DVD, unfolded to show front, back, and spine

Their grief is complicated by the strange presence in their home. Someone walks around at night after they’re all in bed. Russell sees Alice in waking dreams. June is sure that her daughter is trying to communicate with her. And then Alice starts showing up in photographs and video taken around the house by the family, and then in video taken by tourists near the reservoir where she drowned. The family brings in a parapsychologist to help them get in contact with their daughter’s – or whoever’s – spirit seems to be trapped in their home.

Boiled down to its basics, Lake Mungo sounds like a typical haunted house movie. Threads of it show up in dozens of films, over done time and time again until the tropes have lost almost all meaning. But Lake Mungo manages to take this premise and breathe new emotion into it. The result was a horror movie unlike any other horror film I’ve seen.

The movie is set up as a documentary, the film crew coming in to investigate the case of the Palmer family and the haunting of their daughter Alice, which from the set up, seems to be well known in the small Australian community they live in. It also incorporated “found” footage in a way that would be natural in a documentary – news reports, audio tapes, video and cell phone footage. There’s no “gimmick” to these parts of the movie, like there are in so many others. It’s not used to cheat your focus or narrow the storyline. Surprisingly, every time one of these elements is introduced, it broadens and enhances the narrative, bringing messy complications and ulterior motives to the forefront, in the same way that real life is also messy and complicated, and tragedies rarely move on a straight trajectory from point A to point Z.

The family in front of their house.

We follow the family over the period of a couple of months, from their home, where they still see Alice around every corner, until they finally trek out to the eponymous Lake Mungo, and to a certain kind of resolution to their story. While the son and his father are an important part of the story, the heart of the movie is June’s overwhelming grief. It is a movie, on some levels, about mothers and daughters, and the bond that can grow tenuous as young women try to assert their independence, even before they’re quite ready to cope with the adult world. Alice, herself, makes very few appearances in the film, mostly from old video footage the family supplies, but her specter hangs heavily over every scene. I found, at times, that I hoped for a happy ending, to see this mother and daughter reunited. It’s always a difficult thing to wish for hope from a horror film.

The film has gotten mixed reviews from horror-film fans. Many of those who saw it as part of the After Dark Horrorfest complained that they didn’t understand why a film of this nature is billed as a “horror” movie.  It’s a “scary” movie with no jump scares or easily identifiable boogeymen. The film bristles with tension and an almost palpable sense of dread, but the dominant emotion I had by the time the credits rolled was one of a profound sadness. That’s not a common emotion to associate with films in this genre. We’re supposed to be scared or tense or feeling victorious, depending on the resolution, but rarely are we supposed to feel sad. Or for a better term, haunted, by the story we’ve just watched.

Lake Mungo stayed with me for days after the first time I watched it. I wondered about the backstory of this fictitious family, about the young girl who died, and the effort it took for the family to move on. That’s the sign of a good movie – when it lingers, when you believe the world it took place in, when it makes you care about characters that don’t exist before and after the film runs.

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