How Cynicism is Killing Entertainment

LAKE MUNGO -- Proof Horror Lives

Lake Mungo              Horror   Australia

Directed & Written By Joel Anderson




It's been a long time since I've been scared watching a movie. Let me clarify what DOES NOT scare me: blood, gore, violence. While I have watched pretty much everything horror and seen some pretty f*cked up stuff, most of it is just visual noise. Severed heads, limbs, whatever...they're makeup effects no matter how good they are. I am not one of those who has to post or brag: "I laugh at horror." I don't and I don't care to hear from people who need to tell me that they do.


When a horror film has the ability to transcend effects and bring a story so human and as a result, so real to the viewer...that's when it seeps into my bones and disturbs me. Until I saw Lake Mungo I'd say The Exorcist was the scariest film I ever saw. I know, I know some of you reading right now are saying "WHAT?! Get the hell out, The Exorcist is funny!" Again, I suspect most who say this about horror are compensating for something. Regardless, everyone has their own version of scary.


Horror, like grief, is personal.


For me, the scariest scene in The Exorcist is when Father Damien Karras (portrayed by the late, great Jason Miller who was robbed of an Oscar for this role) is sitting on the bed of the restrained Linda Blair. Blair's Regan MacNeil suddenly starts talking in a perfect imitation of Karras's dead elderly mother. Her last words to her son were of guilt as she lie dying in a mental hospital because he was too poor to get her into a regular facility. "Dimmy," she whispered in her broken Italian, "why you do this to me? Why you do this to me, Dimmy?"


Karras, who for the first third of the film made it clear he lost his faith; until this moment refused to believe the girl taunting him was possessed. He let forth a devastated wail that came from the darkest part of his soul: 'YOU'RE NOT MY MOTHER!"


Why is this scary? It's not "turn the lights on and scream" scary. This is soul upsetting scary. For anyone who has experienced grief and worse...grief compounded by guilt...this scene dredges up black feelings and a darkness of the soul that makes us uneasy, upset and possibly scared. True horror seeps into the viewer.


Father Damien Karras with his mother before she fell fatally ill in 1973's The Exorcist.


Lake Mungo is personal. It is about grief. It is truly haunted and its central character is so haunted by her life that the film offers such a twist that suggests the line between life and death is blurred and barely definable. The film uses the mock documentary format and delivers such realistic portrayals of average, every day people, you forget that you are watching a piece of fiction. The film pulls the viewer in through its ability to touch on the fundamental fear of death and how we handle it.


I've spent several posts railing against the latest "found footage" gimmick of films that were spawned out of the box office success of The Blair Witch Project. This has become the standard, as of late, for American horror. Millions of young people know only these types of films as the pinnacle of scary and for the most part, they feel this way because they want to believe what they are watching is true. As a society, we have become so desensitized to blood, gore and violence, we now need things to be more real. Reality TV has proven this, as we have become a voyeuristic society that feeds off of others misery.


Lake Mungo is not "found footage" nor does it depend on shock scares like the Paranormal Activity series. Those films, like the over-hyped, overrated Insidious (basically a Poltergeist remake) rely on luring the audience into a false sense of calm then throwing out a startling image accompanied by a shock sound effect or music cue.


( I equate these kind of films to those Internet videos where you watch a peaceful, quiet scene and then WHAM! a scary image pops up with a loud scream or some kind of music to jolt you).


Usually these images from these types of films are of ghostly apparitions with no eyes, moving suddenly in the background or rushing quickly into the lens. The effect varies, but the formula is the same and Paramount Pictures has made a hefty income off this franchise. In fact a whole production wing has been set up dedicated solely to "found footage" films like these.



Over the weekend of January 13th, Paramount scored the equivalent of a cinematic hit and run with the truly awful and ineptly made The Devil Inside, copying the formula right down to the fake "real screenings" of the film caught with night vision cameras, this time shown in churches (at the time of this writing the film has basically vanished off screens across the country, literally taking the money and running).


Australian film seems to hit a visceral note. They reinvented the giant crocodile/alligator movie with the underrated Relic and the equally underrated Black Water. There are some solid films coming out of The Land Down Under and Lake Mungo is at the head of the pack.


Director Joel Anderson opens the tension faucet in the opening titles and from there he simply lets the events unfold as they should. This movie strikes the perfect horror pitch in the first 60 seconds and it never lets up.


We are taken on a tour of one family's grief. Parents should not outlive their kids, and the grief actors portray is real and palpable. Unlike Paranormal Activity, you are pulled in and find yourself believing everything, even when the film throws a monkey wrench about halfway through. Then the movie resets and takes us down an even darker road where the real horror is not so much the supernatural, but perhaps the darkness that resides in ourselves.



This is tight writing, deft directing and totally, 100% solid acting. One of the hardest things to portray on film is "average." It's easy to play evil, over the top, wild, crazy...but to play the average person and convince the audience is perhaps the hardest challenge for any actor. If you want to see it done badly, check out Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer's The Story of Us. A melodrama for the working class, there is not one second I believed these two wealthy actors knew a thing about the average middle class. The whole thing was laughable. Willis kicked ass in Die Hard and Pfeiffer was purrfect as Catwoman in Batman Returns (the best thing about that film) but both failed miserably at playing Mr. and Mrs. Average Family.



That is not the case with the Palmer family. This troupe of actors sells a totally realistic bill of goods. The horror comes from theirs. For any good parent, true horror is the loss of a child. The grief swells and the days after the burial and the quiet in the house after death must be maddening as some never recover from such a traumatic event. The Palmer family's horror didn't end with their daughter Alice's funeral.


The quiet in the house after death ends as sounds begin to emanate from Alice's room, sightings of shadowy figures in mirrors and on tape and then a major discovery and we think we have the answer. However Anderson is simply taking us down another road. Let me say the reveal offered up by Anderson (who also wrote this gem) rivals anything M. Night Shyamalan has given or could hope to come up with. This film makes his "twists" seem sophomoric at best.


When we finally get to Lake Mungo itself, what we see and what the family discovers is so chilling, I have a cold shiver going down the back of my neck as I write this. The one image rivals anything I have seen in horror because it is attached to reality and yet is clearly a supernatural event. It leaves us scared, disturbed and at the same time...wondering. I can't even begin to describe what it is, for it would be truly a spoiler.


This film needs to be discovered. This is one you sit down, turn out the lights, curl up and let it wash over you. It will sink into your pores, find its way into your breath and chill your heart.


It's that good.


Rarely am I moved to write about something immediately after seeing it, but this film is in my head at midnight and writing about it may help me avoid dreaming about it. Lake Mungo is available on Netflix, for sale through the film's website via PayPal and you can learn more through their Facebook:


Bravo to the filmmakers and thanks for scaring me. It's been awhile and I am grateful.











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