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.

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