Thursday, October 4, 2012

October Watch: Lake Mungo (2008)

Remember when I said "hey, give me some ideas for spooky movies to watch during October?"  Well, some of you humans did so.

One of those humans was Nathaniel Capp, who recommended the 2008 documentary Lake Mungo to me.  I knew it was Australian and creepy, and that's all he'd told me.  "Go in without knowing anything" he said, and so I did.  To discuss the movie is to spoil the movie, so...  anything you read below is your problem.

But I will say, it is definitely some decent October Halloween viewing.


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The documentary traces the tragic drowning death of teenager Alice Palmer and the aftermath of what happened the the Palmer's in the years after her death.  What starts as a seeming series of small events quickly spirals into something far larger.

The biggest challenge for this film is that after Blair Witch and a dozen other "found footage" films and franchises which have appeared since 1999, now, most notably, the Paranormal Activity series, there's no reason to believe any of it from the first frame, even if you come in not certain of what you're watching until you get your first big clue "okay, nothing about this is real".  It makes watching the film problematic, because if you're supposed to be fooled into thinking you're watching real footage, there are simply far, far too many tells that this isn't actual footage, and even if you know it's all for effect, you're left with the question of "why this format to tell this story?  Is it simply atmospheric?  What was the director trying to do?"

Lake Mungo is a bit of a puzzlebox, and an enjoyable one to watch as the director puts the pieces together, but you may also be left wishing the producers had a better feel for how real footage looks or even how real people behave - or the patterns you see in people dealing with the inexplicable as this particular viewer has seen after watching approximately 10,000 hours of Ghost Hunters on SyFy.

In a subgenre that screams for fidelity for reality, it's going to be the small things that both make it work and which give away the game.

The film's through line, of a family suffering, does feel tangible and the performances by the remaining Palmers are the best in the film.   They sell the idea that this is happening, that this happened, terrifically well. Unfortunately, a lot of what they're given to do, especially Alice's brother, Matthew, just doesn't add up very well - and its hard to believe that any of this made it to tape after the big twist (or that the parents wouldn't have reacted more forcefully), that it basically projects the ending of the film from that point forward, no matter what else the director throws in the way in terms of plot smoke screen.

For Nathaniel's sake, I'll say when the movie lost me:  as soon as we saw the first shot of the body getting pulled out of the water.  This was just seconds before the far more graphic shots that followed, but that first shot didn't feel like handheld footage (or why anyone would be shooting it - a question that comes up repeatedly for the viewer throughout the film) or someone who wasn't supposed to be standing right there.  I don't know why, but that gave it away immediately.

There was a lot of stuff like that.  Too much footage.  Not enough confusion in interviews.  The same policewoman (and only one police officer) interviewed over and over with no real insight.  Footage of things that seemed unlikely to have captured.  But there were a lot of character moments that felt artificially driven - and in a movie as long as this one was, it felt like it could have breathed a little more, that connections were tangential.  I'd point to Cropsey as an actual doc that might have made a good template.

And, honestly, the director could spend some time online looking at the sorts of blurry images and optical illusions that folks pass off as ghosts.

But I'm being hard on a movie that actually works pretty well in doing what it tries to do.  It's no worse than, say, Troll about its abuse of the genre its imitating (and Troll is a terrific movie if you've never watched it).  It just felt so, so close to being one of those movies that you would turn around and tell people "These guys did an amazing job of making a faux-doc of a haunting.  You have to see this movie".  Instead, they rely on the narrative strength of their story, which almost seems to rely on a Laura Palmer/ Twin Peaks twist, which really you don't want to do when your characters share a surname that's just going to draw attention to the problem (and parts of it certainly felt homage-like - but I've spoiled enough already).

My favorite Halloween movies are ghost movies, and this one is a solid entry, especially in the modern media parlance of reality programming and doc shows about the paranormal.  Its well worth a view at least once.


ncapp said...

I haven't watched this movie in about two years, but one of the things I really like about it is that it plays with you expectations. I remember watching it (at the Sydney Film Festival) and getting upset that the kid was faking everything and I wasn't watching a ghost story after all.

I never really felt questioned the footage, but I've always been a little cool on the psychic's presence in the movie.

Finally, I particularly enjoy that the family comes to whatever conclusions suit them, but that they ostensibly never notice the actual imperfections (for lack of a better term) in the photos.

I showed a bunch of friends this movie and they weren't too impressed (I love it), but a few said that they couldn't get it out of their heads while trying to go to bed a few nights later.

Glad you watched it!

JAL said...

You may also enjoy the two Ti West films on Netflix, "House of the Devil" and "The Innkeepers". I like them both a great deal. "House of the Devil" (for me) played more like a film from the 80s moreso than a homage and "The Innkeepers" could've just as easily been made in the 60s.

The League said...

@JAL - thanks! I'll add them to the queue!

@ncapp - yeah, I had this weird moment where I looked at the clock when they pulled the rug out on the ghost story side (especially with the set-up with the dad seeing her) and said "well, there's a lot of running time. Here's what I think is going to happen." and I was right. It was like it was such an abrupt shift from what they were initially doing (and with some iffy explanations) that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop eventually - and it did.

I will agree that I think the strongest part of the film was the parents' varying reactions and the attempts to come to conclusions just to obtain closure.

But the zig zag of the plot - especially with the Toohey subplot - wound up feeling like killing time until you got back to the weirdo parts.

Again, it was a good, spooky film. I just always felt like it was so close to being an extraordinary film, and then it would fall a bit short.

Paul Toohey said...

I think I might sue the filmmakers for implying that I had anything to do with this film...

I enjoyed this film, but was expecting something a little more engaging and scary (not that the reveal at the end didn't make me jump a bit). I think me and Ryan are pretty much on the same page. I also wish that there was a different climax, or that they had done a better job cementing that she was experiencing life a year after her death (the end with her describing to Ray her Mom's last session was just a bit weak, something a bit less coincidental and a more detailed would have been nice).

Regarding the footage of the body recovery, I figured that it was news footage or that the police were videoing the recovery. So that didn't really bother me.