A “found footage” mockumentary, Lake Mungo is not a typical horror movie in the vein of The Blair Witch Project or The Exorcist. Instead of a schlocky series of cheap scares, Lake Mungo‘s freshman writer-director Joel Anderson has crafted a low-key supernatural drama which examines the emotional repercussions of a family dealing with grief. With that said though, this engrossing Aussie thriller is nevertheless saturated in a chilling sense of dread. Sometimes the best type of terror is psychological, and that’s exactly why this movie is so effective. As a matter of fact, Lake Mungo is more frightening in its own way than those senselessly gory horror movies that so often invade multiplexes.

The narrative unfolds as a ‘talking heads’ documentary, and concerns the events surrounding the drowning of young Alice Palmer (Zucker) as told by her family: father Russell (Pledger), mother June (Traynor) and brother Mathew (Sharpe). Shortly after Alice’s funeral in early 2006, her grief-stricken family begin hearing unexplainable noises coming from her bedroom, and mysterious images of Alice start showing up in photographs and videos taken around the house. With the possibility looming that Alice’s spirit is haunting their residence, the family decide to call on the services of a psychic named Ray (Jodrell). However, this leads them to uncover Alice’s dark, untold secrets, and in turn they set out to unravel the events leading up to her drowning. Their investigations lead them to the eponymous Lake Mungo, where Alice went for an ostensibly innocent camping trip just a few months prior to her death…

Your enjoyment of Lake Mungo will depend on your expectations. Viewers anticipating something akin to Paranormal Activity or a dumb mainstream horror movie will walk away disappointed. On the other hand, viewers who watch Lake Mungo with an open mind will be engrossed by its unique brilliance. Joel Anderson doesn’t take his viewers as fools; he treats them as adults. Accordingly, Anderson doesn’t force any jump scares, nor did he throw in any loud bangs or blatant music cues to tell us when we’re supposed to be scared. This is a movie which relies on eerie atmosphere and an incredible sense of intrigue. Consequently, Lake Mungo is far more satisfying than any Hollywood horror film of at least the past decade. A polished shot of Jason Voorhees carelessly slicing off heads is not nearly as chilling as grainy camera phone footage of a stomach-churning apparition wandering out of the darkness. Anderson’s handling of the narrative is clever, too, leading to a last-minute twist (revealed during the can’t-miss closing credits) which deepens the tale and renders the film instantly re-watchable.

The documentary conceit was sold with flawless proficiency, to the extent that I constantly and genuinely wandered if the movie was nonfiction. Anderson has done a truly amazing job here, blending interviews, home videos, photographs, phone footage and local news broadcasts (which are especially convincing) to construct this gripping documentary drenched in authenticity. It also helps that the actors are never anything less than believable. The cast is mostly comprised of unknowns (though they often feature in Australian TV dramas and soap operas), which further helps to sell the illusion. The performances are perfectly naturalistic and understated, which serves to ground the proceedings in a sense of humanity. The standout is David Pledger, whose performance as Alice’s dad is heart-wrenching in its candidness. Just one unfocused moment of acting from any performer could’ve destroyed the illusion, but no deal-breaker ever comes. It’s extraordinary.

More than a cliché-ridden ghost story, Lake Mungo is a study of how families cope in the face of great tragedy. Alice’s mother, father and brother struggle to let go of Alice and get over their grief, and the film even shows the kinds of things that people do to help the grieving process. It’s poignant elements like this which make Lake Mungo such a gem. It’s definitely a slow-burner of a movie (maybe at times a little too slow), but what it lacks in gore and cheap scares it makes up in its powerful story, believable characters, and a creepy atmosphere. Lake Mungo is thoroughly fictitious of course, but the picture’s scripted origins are never obvious as the story unfolds.

8.4/10