Lake Mungo (Horrorfest ’10)

Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowned while on an afternoon picnic with her family. Soon after burying their daughter, the Palmers return home to an unsettling and mysterious presence. This documentary examines the strange case of Alice Palmer and the apparent haunting of the Palmer home. Is Alice trying to communicate from beyond the grave and what secrets lay buried in her untimely death? The more the family discovers, the less they realize they knew about a daughter who had one life for her family, one life for her friends and one secret life no one ever knew about.

Aussie filmmaker Joel Anderson’s faux documentary is an interesting attempt at delivering a layered mystery surrounding the tragic death of ones child. Desperately clinging to hope that her husband (David Pledger) has misidentified the body, Mrs. Palmer (Rosie Traynor) is convinced that the photographic and video-taped sightings of Alice are proof that the girl is still alive. But, the more the evidence mounts that something surrounding the drowning is amiss, the more red herrings keep piling up and the longer the journey becomes.

If Lake Mungo has one success it’s this, every time the film seems to reach its apex and offer a clear-cut conclusion to the story of Alice Palmer, Anderson jerks the proverbial rug right out from under you and twists the tale down an entirely new stretch of deserted Australian highway. The further from the original story we travel, the more perverse and ultimately the more sinister the production becomes. What lies beneath the tale of Alice Palmer? What is actually hidden on the scores of tapes we’ve already watched? What happened at Lake Mungo? For the most part, all of these interesting questions are answered over the course of the 87-minute feature.

Now, I know I just said that one of the things I appreciate about the film is all the twists and turns that Anderson peppers throughout his script, now I’m going to tell why when all is said and done, it does a huge disservice to the audience and the film.

The problem is that in the end, the film has achieved a revolutionary conclusion that is fascinatingly unexplored. It all builds to this, and then it stops. It stops with a sort of resigned notion that the Palmer family has accepted what occurred as fact but it never really satisfies the curiosity that piqued the audience’s interest.

At the end of the day there is a base storytelling problem existent in Lake Mungo and it’s due to the medium with which Anderson chose to convey his tale. By making the documentary as utterly dry and realistic as possible, Anderson abandons most cinematic pretenses. This might be logistically correct given the way he decided to present his film, but it will absolutely leave some viewers displeased when the final credits roll. It says a lot for the story that we wanted to see more of it. The problem is we’ll never get to.

In many ways, the film is a companion piece to The Blair Witch Project and the proliferation of post Blair Witch “found footage’ productions that exploded in the late 1990’s. But, by being authentic to the original design you risk frustrating fans who expect conclusions from their films. I’m not saying that I need a film to tell me everything. In fact, I’m a bigger fan of the open ending/non-resolution storyline than probably anyone I know and truthfully, Lake Mungo provides an acceptable conclusion to its tale. It’s just that when we finally get there, we’ve invested so much in the project that we really, really want the answers. Unfortunately, the answers we get are so immense that they cause us to ask dozens more questions. It’s those unanticipated questions firing off in our brains that finally make the film unsatisfying.

Lake Mungo is hardly a unique concept. Its execution seems to be calculated and carried out according to plan. The story of Alice Palmer is fascinating and well structured. Regrettably, so many of the forks in Alice’s road to discovery are intriguing that the film can’t clearly address them all. I guess the ultimate problem with Lake Mungo is that the filmmakers had too many good ideas crammed into one film and not enough time to tell all their tales.

Official Score