Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VIII): Absentia (2011) dir. Mike Flanagan

Logline: Seven years after her husband vanished without a trace and with his death now having been declared in absentia, Tricia (Courtney Bell) is finally beginning to move on with her life, despite feeling haunted by his absence. She's pregnant with her first child, involved in a new romance, and reconnecting with her long-estranged younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker). But when her husband, Daniel (Morgan Peter Brown), appears bloody, malnourished, and traumatized on the street in front of their home, Tricia's life is once again thrown into confusion and turmoil. Where has Daniel been for the past near decade, and what does his disappearance have to do with the large number of missing persons in the immediate area over the past century? The answers lie within the walls of a dark cement tunnel, underneath the reality we perceive, in a fantastic hell of unearthly origins.

Analysis: Absentia is a film about loss, grief, and the ghosts of past shames haunting us in the present. It's a film about sisterhood, family, and sacrifice. Perhaps strangely, it's also a film about the cruelty of a greedy bridge troll. Well, as we learn, it looks a little more like a silverfish than Shrek, but a troll nonetheless. Fortunately, the film's emphasis isn't placed on exploring the wickedness of a fairy tale monster, but on examining the sad lives of the gruff goats the troll gobbles up in his hunger. Though the film takes the Norwegian fairy tale "Three Billy Goats Gruff" as its partial inspiration, we're left to experience the alternate version, in which the goats fail to outsmart their adversary. We're watching the previous goats, the ones who attempted to cross the bridge before the fairy tale proper begins: the goats whose lives gave the troll its reputation for voraciousness.


These are battered, broken characters, hobbled by their addictions, mistakes, and regrets. Tricia has lost seven years of her life searching for and mourning over her lost husband, whom she never really loved to begin with. (They were high school sweethearts, we learn, and their marriage was a rash and unhappy decision.) Callie has been adrift for most of her adult life, struggling with drugs and doomed romantic relationships, all while alienating herself from her family and loved ones. Both seek solace through various methods (Tricia through rounds of therapy and meditation; Callie through religion), but both cannot escape their demons (Tricia is haunted by visions of her accusatory husband; Callie keeps her emergency stash in a jewelry box beneath her crucifix). Their lives are not happy ones, and just when things begin to look up (the sisters reconnect, a baby is on the way, a romance is in bloom, a new house is being hunted for, a fresh start is on the horizon), life kicks them off the figurative bridge into the muck: Daniel returns and then disappears once more, Callie starts using again (or at least everyone assumes-- and always will assume-- she has), romance is ruined, plans are scrapped, and trust and faith evaporate.


The film's tagline proclaims, "There are fates worse than death." True: there's always life. What option do Tricia, Callie, and even Daniel have but to absent themselves from their situations, to retreat to a realm that's not quite death but far from the disappointments of earthly existence? In their turns, all three are spirited away to a subterranean nether realm, existing beyond the laws of matter and possibly time. But, you might be asking, isn't this all the fault of that greedy troll and his famous appetite for those who wander onto his terrain by mistake? Surely these three weren't asking for their grim fates. Ah, but a counterargument: consider how easy it is for those characters who remain to justify away the absence of those missing, to imagine the hundred reasons they would have to simply disappear. When Callie attempts a trade with the troll for Tricia and her unborn infant, we might commend her selflessness for offering up herself first, instead of the customary neighborhood pets. But is it selflessness of selfishness? Is Callie envious of her sister's tortured quasi-oblivion? It might seem the cruelest trick when the troll spits out only Tricia's unborn fetus in response to Callie's offer before collecting its flesh bounty from her, but perhaps it's not a trick at all. Perhaps Tricia is precisely where she wants to be, absent from the pains of the past seven years. And as for Callie, it's telling that our last image of her in the film is a tranquil one, shot from behind and through the strange perspective of the realm she now inhabits, looking out into what she used to know as her cursed reality. We see that her new keeper has its insectile arm draped lightly over her shoulders, as if in comfort.


Technical Merits: Absentia is a testament to the potential effectiveness of horror on a limited budget, With over a third of its production funds crowdsourced from a Kickstarter campaign, the film didn't have an inordinate amount of money to play around with, but writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan sure makes the most of his pennies. Unable to afford lavish special effects to create the film's eerie subterranean netherworld or its mammoth insect overseer, Flangan and his cinematographer choose to employ suggestion and subtlety (those oft forgotten tricks of the trade) in those spots of the film where visual horror is necessitated. The dreary digital sheen of the film's mid-level high definition video is made an aesthetic asset rather than a mark of its financial inferiority: its startles us with its placement of an ancient, folkloric evil within the context of the mundane contemporary world and the digital lenses we now more often than not glimpse it through. 

This is what budget horror cinema should look and feel like in the current decade. That Flanagan was able to accomplish so much with the pocket change (relatively speaking) that he had for Absentia, and then turn in a glossy, Hollywood-esque followup with (in Hollywood's terms) a paltry $5 million for his next feature, the excellent Oculus (2014), should shame most other horror filmmakers out of the genre. You know what else cost $5 million? Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), which was funded and produced by Blumhouse Productions, just like Oculus was. It shouldn't be, but it's like comparing rotten apples and blood oranges. The rotten apples should start paying attention to the superior fruit.


Relevance: Absentia is a candied house of horrors for its viewers. As we approach it, the film gives off the sickly sweet appearance of a character drama. We imagine we'll get up close and personal to the lives of our principles, tasting the bitter outer layers of trauma and hardship before our taste buds hit the saccharine redemption at the center. Ah, but we are mistaken, for this is a witch's candy house, and as we wander inside we discover the horror locked in the basement: the endurance of the scarier fairy tales and folklore against the progression of time, sugarcoating a Lovecraftian realm of supernatural, subterranean terrors and torment. Our mouths taste sour before we're pushed into the oven, off of the troll's foot bridge, into Grandma Wolf's gaping maw. We've been tricked. The film ushers childhood bedtime stories and nightmares into horror's contemporary era, but its revisions of these interchangeable tales we dimly recall from our youth are only surface-level. (A bug for a troll isn't much.) To truly frighten us, it knows that it need only tell us the tales again.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VII): The Innkeepers (2011) dir. Ti West

Logline: On the last weekend of the historic Yankee Pedlar Inn's operation as a business, front desk clerks Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) embark on a ghost hunt when not serving their few remaining guests. The two minimum wage workers hope to capture evidence of the presence of Madeline O'Malley, the hotel's famed phantasm, for fun and possible profit. But Claire is soon to discover that the spirits of the Yankee Pedlar Inn are very real, and that they have their own plans to capture her, too...

Analysis: In traditional ghost stories, ghosts aren't created by accident. Fate (or the authorial hand) pushes certain characters-- even on occasion the protagonists-- towards their haunted afterlives, bestowing upon them an existence lonelier than death. Such a fate may seem cruel and unfair, but we can't shake the feeling that these characters are marked for ghost-dom, and that they might lead more productive lives postmortem than they were able to while still breathing.

In The Innkeepers, Claire is already a sort of ghost when we meet her. Her aimlessness and twenty-something ennui places her somewhere between life (or adolescent vigor) and death (the inevitable daily grind). When, early in the film, she flees from the range of the insipid juvenile babble issuing from the mouth of a similarly aged barista (Lena Dunham), we realize that Claire has divorced herself from the concerns of young adulthood, but her inability to even comprehend a life or passion outside of her dead-end job illustrates her failure to assume the (sometimes soul-crushing) responsibilities of being an adult. At one point in the film, Luke accuses Claire of being in the throes of a "quarter-life crisis," but this is news to her: even with the inevitable closing of her place of employment mere days away, Claire hasn't given a moment's thought to her plans post-steady paycheck.


This absence of forethought on Claire's part is because she is exactly where she's supposed to be, among the other lost and purposeless spirits (a widower, an abandoned bride) haunting the Yankee Pedlar Inn. Claire has been marked by fate: as Luke notes, when trying to comfort her, "Everything happens for a reason, Claire. Nobody just winds up at Yankee Pedlar." His aren't hopeful words.

The film posits young adulthood and minimum wage work as a sort of purgatory that one can either aspire a way out of or be trapped in forever. (Though the film also acknowledges the difficulty of making anything of one's self in our busted, post-bubble economy. What exactly is one to do for a "legitimate career"? Open a hotel?) Luke is spared a ghostly existence because at least he's trying, however poorly, to achieve a level of success outside of the doomed inn. On the contrary, Claire subconsciously realizes she has no aspirations, prospects, or literally any place else to haunt, and the end of the business is, for all intents and purposes, the end of her aimless wheel-spinning.


The rotten economy leads to the demise of both Claire and the Yankee Pedlar, but it's the hotel that emerges as the major figure worth mourning. The film imparts to us lots of little intimations that the Yankee Pedlar has a real, tangible history, and that the hotel itself is actively resisting becoming obsolete, forgotten, and unoccupied (it's making new ghosts, after all). And, if we can't bring ourselves to feel sympathy for a woman unable or unwilling to pull herself up by her still-corporeal bootstraps, we can certainly lament the loss of a home for wayward souls.

Technical Merits: Separated by actual title cards, the film's chapters unfurl before us like those of the best supernatural literature: slowly but certainly, like graveworms to the corpse buffet. The Innkeepers abandons the retro style of Ti West's previous films The Roost (2005) and The House of the Devil (2009), but revels in the slow-burn horror of the latter. West's avoidance of a deliberately nostalgic style in this retro-narrative-influenced outing is appropriate, juxtaposing the lurid appeal of ancient history (the historic hotel; the classical ghost story) with the overwhelming sterility and blandness of the modern world (dispiriting economic recession; contemporary horror cinema). Thus, West keeps much of The Innkeepers snail-paced, its exquisitely framed images rolling deliberately, almost fluidly, across the screen. He allows only fleeting glimpses of the supernatural to crawl into his compositions and remind us of the gracefully sinister storytelling traditions wallpapered over by the 21st century's drudgery.


Like all effective horror films (and like very few of its contemporaries), The Innkeepers understands that true horror is not located in the repeated build-up and release of suspense. Rather, horror is generated by mood and atmosphere, by the disquieting framing of the camera or by editing that lingers serenely on the ghastliest of sights just long enough to sear them into our retinas. In this vein, West openly pokes fun at his peers and their over-reliance on build-and-release jump scares: in one scene, Luke spooks Claire with one of the many Youtube videos in which a half minute of silent anticipation is shattered by a demonic shriek and the enlarged image of some variation of Linda Blair's face. Put into comparison with the mastery of the genre's form on display in The Innkeepers, the bulk of modern horror looks roughly as complex and polished as the uploaded shock-video efforts of hypothetical Youtube user dEMonIAC94. Sure, West is rubbing other filmmakers' noses in their own laziness a little bit (even if lightheartedly), but I won't fault him for setting a higher standard.

Relevance: The Innkeepers is a little like Charles Dickens's "The Signal-Man" (1866), if you transported the latter's action from the lonely railroad tracks of England to a lonely historic inn in Connecticut. Both The Innkeepers and "The Signal-Man" are concerned with protagonists stuck in dead-end jobs, haunted by spirits of their own static lives, and ultimately consumed by their inability to extricate themselves from their situations. There's not an exact resemblance between the two works, but Ti West, The Innkeepers' writer and director, is quite obviously paying homage to the tradition of classical Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories that "The Signal-Man" is a sterling example of: quaint, melancholy tales of the relationship between fate and the supernatural.


The film's use of this classical ghost yarn form is important because of its increasing obsolescence in 21st-century horror cinema. Traditional ghost stories simply aren't feasible in our postmodern era. Look at the ghost films of recent years: Paranormal Activity (2009), Ringu (1998), Kairo (2001). Each of these films strives to place the figure of the ghost outside of its familiar territory (no more haunted manors, hotels, moors, or cemeteries) and thoroughly enmesh its existence with the most recognizable elements of modern technology (home video cameras, telephones, VHS tapes, televisions, webcams, and the Internet). The postmodern ghost transcends fixed place and lives out its afterlife digitally through our devices and media; the traditional ghost that The Innkeepers homages is stranded, rattling its chains to deaf ears while irrevocably tied to its location. And the fact is that America's haunted locations are dying. Demolitions, re-modelings, and renovations are eradicating the country's architectural history, replacing buildings of character with antiseptic McMansions, planned communities, and strip malls. At the time of The Innkeepers' release in 2011, Phil Coldiron wrote, "who could imagine a ghost story set in a Courtyard by Marriott?" No one can, and that's why the majority of traditional ghost films produced in the last decade or so (The Others [2001], The Orphanage [2007], The Devil's Backbone [2001], The Awakening [2011]) have been period pieces set in foreign countries, alleviating our difficulty in imagining a contemporary America with standing buildings old enough to have a history.


The ghosts of yore dematerialize with the shuttering of their local haunts, and this is a reality worth mourning. In the for-real operational Yankee Pedlar Inn (est. 1891) and its ghostly inhabitants (both "real" and imagined), West finds dual last bastions worth celebrating, and his film's intelligent drawing of parallels between the demise of historic architecture and the growing irrelevancy of ghost stories demonstrates his fondness for and eagerness to preserve both, if only temporarily. Sadly, but appropriately, he ends The Innkeepers with the image of a door being shoved closed, both literally and figuratively. We could claim a spirit's forceful push was the cause, but the handprints smudged on the frame are our own.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

PODCAST: Zombie Holocaust (1980) dir. Marino Girolami

a.k.a. Doctor Butcher, M.D.

On this latest installment of Hello! This is the Doomed Show, Richard and I rub scalloped potatoes on our faces and stumble out blindly into the treacherous, cannibal-stuffed jungles of Italy, moaning out our song of death. That's right: we watched Zombie Holocaust (1980), and boy do we have a lot to discuss! In the following episode, we gurgle noisily about negligent hospital staff, macrobiotic diets, scarf lassoing, Harvey Keitel's Italian stand-in, boat motor facial reconstruction surgery, the fertility powers of human scalps, vocal cord tucking, the perils of not reading the Frankenstein SparkNotes in high school, and the musical stylings of noted glam rocker Snuff Maximus. Rest assured, friends, this podcast will tear your heart out. And then it will feed the rest to the natives. Our apologies.


You can listen to the episode by visiting 
the show's Podomatic page or by examining the show archive.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part VI): Amer (2009) dir. Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

Logline: A triptych of sex and death. In the first segment, Ana (Cassandra Forêt), a young girl, has strange and frightening encounters with her wraith-like grandmother on the eve of her grandfather's funeral. In the second segment, Ana (Charlotte Eugène Guibeaud), now an adolescent, savors the sensory delights of the world and the attention of men during a trip into town with her mother (Bianca Maria D'Amato). In the final segment, Ana (Marie Bos), now an adult herself, returns to her abandoned childhood home to confront her past and is instead confronted by a black-gloved killer brandishing a straight-razor.

Analysis: Amer is about the perils (and pleasures) of psychosexual development gone horribly awry. Freudian psychoanalytic theories have long been entwined with horror cinema on both sides of the Atlantic, but rarely so explicitly as they are in this Belgian-French thriller. The film dramatizes an extreme case of sexual repression, with our patient-- the young, adolescent, and finally middle-aged Ana-- confusing Eros and Thanatos during her latent stage of childhood development. To confuse, perhaps conflate sex and death at such a delicate period in one's life will create obvious issues later on. Thus, we watch as Ana grows up into a woman who simultaneously courts and resists sexual attention, as if the prospect of sex is akin to a primal threat of violence and a gateway to the ultimate sensual pleasure.

We witness the root of Ana's repression taking hold in the film's first segment, when Ana walks in on her parents having sex immediately before the family is to attend its decrepit patriarch's funeral. The film tells us that this is a key moment: Ana's eyes go wide, and glass cracks and breaks across the the image of her face as the lights illuminating the screen shift between vibrant primary and secondary colors. She sees her mother on her back in a fit of ecstasy, looking much like a corpse on a slab, or like the corpse of her grandfather in the other room. Her father's sexual thrusting looks like the mindless violence of a killer thrusting a knife. The damage is done.


Ana has this traumatic encounter after being chased around the house by her ghastly, witchy grandmother, who is perpetually veiled in black lace to conceal her horrific visage. For the child Ana, this elderly presence, with its extreme age, opaque habits, and proximity to death, exists as a personification of death itself, always in pursuit of us mortals from the day we're born. However, these feelings don't dissuade Ana from her attraction to the death that the elderly figures in her life represent. We see her recklessly spy on her grandmother's arcane activities, and she steals her dead grandfather's jewelry from his corpse (going so far as to use a crucifix to pry it from his rigor mortised hands). The threat and presence of death will continue to have an allure for Ana.

In the film's second section, we watch as Ana's mother recognizes a connection that Ana has already made: through her daughter, who has now grown into sexual maturity, she sees that she is being replaced by a younger copy of herself and thus becomes aware of her own mortality, recognizing (as Ana already does, in her own twisted fashion) that the price of sex (read: reproduction) is death. As the two women strut into town in their sundresses and consciously attract the gazes of the men they're passing by, each is acutely aware of the other's position in life. Ana sees her mother's graying temples and smugly smirks; her mother sees her daughter's budding sensuality and tries desperately to hold its hand like a mother would a small child, to prevent it from blossoming.


But, for Ana, her blossoming is a complicated life event. We notice as the wind blows onto her body and an ant crawls across her skin that Ana has become keenly aware of the sensual pleasures that the world now has to offer her. Thus, the sexual attention of the men she encounters on this trip into town is somewhat appealing, but it's also clearly threatening. As she walks, alone, past a large group of rugged and dangerous looking motorcyclists, we understand her to be pulling her windblown dress down out of both feigned modesty and a genuine sense of fear. She's intrigued by the pleasure these men have the potential to now offer her, but she's also cognizant (however rightly or wrongly) of the danger in embracing such sexual pleasures.

In the third section of the film, we learn that Ana's predicament has resulted in a frigid and apprehensive adulthood. She has forsaken sexual activity, imagining every male she encounters in her daily travels as a threat to her safety. We meet her as she is returning (for reasons unknown) to her family's abandoned villa, the site of her traumatic experience and the catalyst of her sexual repression. While there, wandering the villa's empty rooms and hallways, her psychological troubles come to a head as she is stalked by a masked, black-gloved madman who is attempting to violate her (in one way or another). Is this villain the rugged, dangerous-looking cab driver who drove her there? After all, he knows where she's staying and that she's staying there alone. Have Ana's fears of the men around her proven justly founded?


The reality of Ana's situation is more psychologically complex than baseless paranoia. The killer she encounters (who first attacks her while she's getting perhaps a little too comfortable with her own body in the bathtub) is no one but herself, projected outwardly into the world by her psyche as a separate entity. She lives in fear of her own desire for sexual pleasure, imagining this desire as a faceless, psychotic male waving around a phallic straight-razor. For Ana to express her sexuality in any form (by herself or with a friend) is to beckon the violent reaction of this other persona, who appears to have taken the place of her grandmother in her psyche as the primal figure of Death. While her mind primarily views this entity as something separate from herself and looking to punish her, she also opportunely uses the persona to punish others: when the cab driver eventually does show up at the villa (for purposes unknown but probably no good), Ana, adopting this persona, brutally carves him up with her razor. For all, the price of sex must be death. Ana is certain of this.

So certain is Ana of the correlation between sex and death, that she stabs her personified sexual desire in the gut to avoid confronting it, inadvertently causing her own death by gut wound. When we next see her, in the film's final images, she's on a slab in the mortuary, being delicately, perhaps sensually manipulated by the hands of an unseen mortician. Her expressions, in death, mirror those of her mother during sex, and the soundtrack is filled with low, ghostly sighs, as if she's actually responding to touch. In death, her confusion of Eros and Thanatos is reconciled if by nothing more than the fact that there's nothing to fear from the death that has already caught up to her. This isn't an unhappy ending: we discover that for Ana, the price of death is sex. And, as we see in the final frames before the credits roll, a little bit of much-needed postmortem physical attention has the ability to break down psychological barriers and animate the coldest and clammiest of souls.


Technical Merits: The technical merits of Amer should be immediately obvious to anyone with working senses. It's one of those "every frame deserves to be screencapped" pictures. Directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani are practitioners of a high style, using sound and image to communicate their story and its themes without the use of exposition or dialogue. (The few small snippets of dialogue in the film's first segment don't serve as meaningful exceptions.) The technique the the pair employ switches frequently and with ease, like when transitioning from the first episode's Jan Svankmajer-style frenetic focus on abstracted actions and objects to the second segment's Spaghetti Western-inspired protracted dramatic tension. Amer's style is also a jumble of visual and aural associations from Italian fantasy-horrors of the 1970s: Cattet and Forzani's framing plucks exact shots from the work of Argento and Bava, and their soundtrack effectively repurposes the music of Stelvio Cipriani and Bruno Nicolai. Pilfer they might, but they pilfer from the greats.

Relevance: Despite the popular consensus that Cattet and Forzani's Amer is a blatant (if possibly egregious) homage to the Italian giallo thriller, the truth is that the film's homage extends to most areas of Italian exploitation cinema of the 1970s. Sure, the film's longest episode is given over completely to giallo elements and imagery, but signifiers throughout the remainder of the film call to our minds other genres, like the Argento-style supernatural horror film (as in all of the first episode), Leone-esque Spaghetti westerns (as in the incessant, tension-filled close-ups on eyes in the second episode), and poliziotteschi crime films (as in the use of several soundtrack selections recycled from genre classics).


Amer doesn't strive to be a flashy contemporary giallo; rather, it succeeds on its own merits by taking a recurrent giallo theme (the Freudian sex/death confusion), filtering it through the kaleidoscope of '70s Italian cinema in toto, and then translating it into French, creating a lurid and often dizzying demonstration of the artistry inherent in the era's diverse sights and sounds. In this sense, Amer could be seen as a celebration of others' work, and that it is, but its originality lies in its complex rearrangement and intensification of those cherry-picked motifs and visual/audial elements. In flaccid-- if more digestible-- terms, it's less of a Greatest Hits than it is a collection of recognizable but undeniably distinct (and weirdly alien) remixes. Thus, Amer is brain candy for any critically-minded viewer of Italian horror cinema, alternately numbing and igniting the synapses as it stalks its merry way across the cortex.

To grasp the subtlety of Cattet and Forzani's approach to their material in Amer, one need look no further than their follow-up feature, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears (2013), a study in cinematic excess and incoherence. Minus the Belgian duo's still obvious talent as visual filmmakers, their relentless experimental tendencies, and their expert use of genre soundtrack greats, their sophomore effort all too frequently resembles what Amer's detractors claimed that film was: a cluttered, pretentious film-school appropriation of the giallo. Put into juxtaposition with one another, Amer must now seem the more tasteful approach to lovers and haters all.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Dreadful Decade (Part V): Lake Mungo (2008) dir. Joel Anderson

Logline: After the accidental drowning of their teenage daughter (Alice, portrayed by Talia Zucker), the surviving members of the Palmer family have trouble sorting out their collective grief. Their problems are exacerbated by the alleged appearances of Alice's ghost in their home and abroad. This pseudo-documentary seeks to determine the existence of Alice's spectral afterlife and uncover the lingering mysteries of her corporeal days, long buried in the sands of Australia's dried-out Lake Mungo.

Analysis: When we see Alice Palmer in old photographs and video footage, those taken both before and after her untimely demise, we can't shake the feeling that we're looking at a ghost. Perhaps, as the film hints, she was always a ghost, in one sense of the term. We learn over the course of the film that she has encountered her own ghost, has dreamed of her later life as a ghost, and has taken actions that she will later take again as a ghost. Alice Palmer haunts Lake Mungo. The appropriateness of the film's title and its reference to New South Wales' famous dry lake is manifold. At the film's climax, Alice encounters a specter of her future at the dead lake, only to later die in the active waters of another, different lake. Later, she is seen haunting the lake she died in, and yet she was already haunting the dry Lake Mungo while she was alive. Lake Mungo itself materializes within the film as a phantasm, as a visual monument to a place both dead and curiously alive, lingering on as a palpable presence and vacation spot. The temporal circularity of Lake Mungo leaves the dry lake and Alice stuck somewhere between life and death, existence and nonexistence. Lake Mungo laments the tragedy of such a fate, and one way to read the film is as an ode to those sad souls like Alice who can anticipate their own ends through the troubling way they lead their lives. Alice is haunted by her own ghosts: the knowledge that her actions are leading her swiftly towards death and her resignation over the fact that no one can help her, not even those closest to her.


But I think there's a far grimmer reading to be dredged from the bottom of Lake Mungo, one derived not from Alice's personal demons but from the gross negligence of her family in recognizing her trouble before (and after) it was too late. The Palmers loved Alice, certainly, but it's clear they never really possessed any awareness of what was going on in her life. They're ignorant of her fear of death, her use of psychic counseling, and her bizarre sexual affair with the next-door neighbors. We're told of the chilly relationship between Alice and her mother, June (Rosie Traynor), who could never manage to give herself fully to her daughter. After Alice's death, each member of her small family attempts to grieve in a different way: Roy (David Pledger), her father, distracts himself with his work; Mathew (Martin Sharpe), her brother, inexplicably forges fake evidence of her ghost's presence in the family home; and June steadfastly clings to the hope that Alice might not be dead at all. With the exception of Roy (who is eager to forget Alice entirely), the family's expressions of grief are based in the logic of guilt. They don't want Alice to be gone from their lives entirely, because if she is that means they've failed her in some way, and that June's fear that Alice will have died not knowing how much they loved her is fact. Thus, the family colludes to keep Alice alive, in one form or another, until they feel absolved of their own guilt over not being able to help her during her existential depression, of which they were clueless.


It's the act of uncovering Alice's secrets in the year that follows her death that makes her family think they've finally put her spirit to rest. The film's most melancholy and heart-wrenching horror is that they're wrong. In their desire to move on with their lives, the Palmers were distracted by the superficial revelations about Alice's troubled life and were thus unable to see that her deeper problem was her inability to seek solace and assistance within her distant family unit. During the film's denouement, a masterful montage of separate psychic meditation sessions with mother and daughter conducted a year apart about an unknowingly shared dream, we learn that Alice has been trying to communicate to her family her continued existence, to no avail. In the end, her family abandons her, moves to a new house free of her association. But perhaps they had already abandoned her, back when she was alive, sobbing with fright at the foot of her parents' bed but unable to bring herself to awaken them. The film's conclusion leaves Alice's family ignorantly, blissfully sleeping on, and Alice herself haunting empty hallways, alone, in death as in life.


Technical Merits: The effectiveness of Lake Mungo's documentary approach to horror storytelling goes a long way towards lending legitimacy to the documentary/found footage horror subgenre. The film's documentary form suits the material, allowing us to glimpse Alice Palmer only through ghostly family videos and photographs, in which her vibrant life is captured in flat, lifeless celluloid and digital pixels. The documentary form allows writer/director Joel Anderson to keep Alice and her mystery at a distance from us, but it also enables him to slowly unravel a lot of the plot's big revelations in a way that feels organic to the constructed nature of a documentary, and which would probably feel cheap or unearned in a traditionally shot horror feature. Watching Lake Mungo, we're always aware that we're in the hands of a skilled documentarian who wishes to lead us gently from one mystery to the next, with the film's sheen of faux-reality making us feel (however fleetingly) like collaborators, following the leads placed before us. As if we're watching a segment on Unsolved Mysteries, and right before the commercial break we'll be flashed the phone number for the tip hotline.


Much of the film's success as a faux-documentary can be attributed to that fact that it's wonderfully shot and edited, with a keen awareness of the proper balance of static talking-head interviews, moody scenery and location shots, and amateur found footage. Like the best actual documentaries, the screen is subtly kinetic and layered, with the assembled images providing for the viewer a narrative beyond the information given through interview and observation. For the sticklers out there, you could easily (and cruelly) convince a fellow viewer that it was a real documentary (I have!), as it only very rarely stretches credibility or verisimilitude. (The only obvious flaw in this aspect of the film is the repeated occurrence of random folks around town discovering important-to-the-narrative images/figures/ghosts in their barely discernible amateur-recorded video footage. A bizarre, unnecessary form of crowdsourcing, we might say.)


Relevance: If the television series Twin Peaks (and its prequel film, Fire Walk with Me [1992]) had been filmed as a faux-documentary and lost all of its oddball humor, it would look a lot like Lake Mungo. Of course, there's no murder mystery acting as Lake Mungo's narrative backbone like in Twin Peaks, but otherwise the similarities are pertinent: a beautiful, locally adored teenage girl (also with the surname "Palmer." Imagine that...) dies tragically, her family's grief affects the whole town, a mystery (of a sort) is unraveled as the characters discover the seedy secret life of the dead girl, and eventually all gives way to a creepy, half-decipherable supernatural world. This affinity for the intrigue and narrative twists of Twin Peaks-inspired dead teen girl mysteries is actually a partial detriment to Lake Mungo, though not a fatal one. All of the focus placed upon Alice's secrets and hidden quasi-bad girl persona distract from what is, at its core, one of the most emotionally despondent horror films out there. The film drowns itself in sadness, and yet it's no less frightening for its embrace of that emotional tether. Lake Mungo is far from the first film to try to make us feel sympathy for a scary ghost, but it's one of the best at making us realize the crushing, inescapable humanity of those storied chain-rattlers.