Friday, November 20, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Lake Mungo (2008)

Lake Mungo (2008) is a heart-wrenching, and frightening mock-documentary horror film, and thus, I suppose, “found footage” in nature. It’s a first person-styled film, with the camera serving as a key actor, recording life as it unfolds. The film also features talking-head interviews, recovered footage (off a cell phone), and more.

The film dramatizes -- without sensationalizing -- the story of an Australian family, the Palmers, grieving after the drowning death of an adolescent daughter, Alice (Talia Zucker).

But strangely, Alice’s death is only the beginning of a bizarre and terrifying odyssey that involves, in no particular order: the human desire for closure, the inescapable fact that death brings separation, and even the idea that we can never really “know” another person, even those we love.

Crafted with a high-degree of restraint, Lake Mungo grows continuously more intriguing the longer it runs, peeling open, like the layers of an onion, before our eyes. 

One scene -- set at Lake Mungo during blackest night -- is incredibly eerie in execution, and the film’s denouement, a radical reconstruction of reality to accommodate our desire to believe that “death is not the bitter end” serves as an emotional catharsis; a reckoning that even if ghosts exist in our plane of existence, they remain worlds apart from those they loved in this mortal coil.  The film’s valedictory images are shocking too -- because we wonder how our eyes could have missed such evidence of the supernatural -- but they also feel haunting, strangely elegiac.

Loneliness can be forever, the film seems to warn us.

The mock-documentary format served The Atticus Institute (2015) quite well, and here’s another example where that format achieves a sense of cerebral, and occasionally, visceral terror. Lake Mungo provides the viewers no easy answers about its mystery, but the film’s final images tell us everything we need to know about what happened to Alice, and where she is…right now.

I know that some readers aren’t fans of the found-footage milieu, but Lake Mungo is a film that will pique their interest too. The film isn’t just about shaky-cams running through the woods. Contrarily, the documentary approach asks us to keep our cold, dispassionate distance from the subject matter, even as the evidence of the supernatural grows ever closer, and ever more disturbing.

“This is like the end of hope for all of us.”

A documentary records the story of the Palmer family.

Alice Palmer, a young woman, drowned in a lake on December 21, 2005, while out swimming with her family.  Her friends, parents, and brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe) grapple with Alice’s death, and her mother desperately seeks closure. To help her achieve that, Matthew creates hoax videos suggesting that Alice’s ghost is nearby, and still interacting with the family.

After Matthew’s hoax is exposed, however new footage comes to light, involving Alice’s sexual dalliances with neighbors, and her attempts, months before her death, to contact a psychic about something terrifying she witnessed at Lake Mungo, where she buried her cellphone.

Determined to know the truth, the Palmers head to Lake Mungo, and excavate the phone. 

On it, they watch a video of an encounter seemingly impossible, one that made the sensitive Alice realize her days here on Earth were numbered…

“There is absolutely no rational explanation for what we saw on that phone.”

Lake Mungo is found footage in nature, utilizing several components of that (oft-derided) format. 

For example, we get many talking head “confessional” interviews with the main and subordinate characters, an excuse for an omnipresent camera (the making of a documentary), and then a number of other video sources that propel the narrative forward. In this case, there is a video of Alice in her dalliance with (the mysterious neighbors), and the shocking, inexplicable cell phone footage, revealed at the film’s denouement.  From the documentary format, Lake Mungo get a lot of good B-Roll footage that adds to our understanding of the characters, such as family photos and films from Alice in her childhood.

There are no real special effects to speak of though some gruesome make-up is featured at one point, and also, clearly, some photos get doctored for the aforementioned climatic montage. 

One of the film’s most interesting moments involves Matthew explaining -- and showing us -- how he staged his ghost hoax videos with trick photography. This explanation is so good that it feels like a gut punch when, at the end of the film, the photos he used in his quest to provide his mother “closure” reveal something wholly unexpected, and counter-intuitive.

He thought he was tricking his family. But he wasn’t seeing the whole picture. When is a hoax not a hoax? When a ghost is right there, in front of your eyes, and yet you still don’t see it.

Lake Mungo does not concern light or easy topics. The film is deadly serious, in that regard. Alice’s mom feels guilt and loss, and at one point recalls a conversation with Alice about a dream in which her daughter came to her for help, and wasn’t heard. Late in the film, in a creepy but lyrical scene, that moment--– actually a premonition -- is played out not between living daughter and mother, but ghost and mother.

The film concerns the idea of closure; something we humans often don’t get.  In some circumstances, it can be impossible to achieve. Mrs. Palmer arrives at some sense of closure, one might assume, but the film suggest that Alice does not. That her prison of loneliness is far more lasting than Mrs. Palmer’s grief or mourning.

If one seeks metaphor or subtext in horror films, there is one here, for certain.  Often, those who have acted in a way not accepted by society or family -- especially in the sexual realm -- are ostracized by their loved ones. Or worse, they carry feelings of guilt and shame that makes it impossible for them to meaningfully interact with their loved ones.  Alice – a ghost in the film – realizes a very similar fate.  Her secrets become known, and she fades away, present but invisible; but a ghost on the periphery of the family.

The phenomenon at the heart of Lake Mungo -- seen in the cell phone video -- is one that has been reported anecdotally and in parapsychological literature for years, even decades: the doppelganger. It might be defined as an “astral” or “etheric” counterpart of the physical body.  

The lake -- a body of water -- may be crucial to Alice’s experience with this apparition too.  She encounters the doppelganger when she is at Lake Mungo and she dies, also, near a body of water; near a dam, in Ararat. Is the water the conduit for her terrifying vision? 

The movie doesn’t tell us, and that’s another reason I so admire the film. Lake Mungo spoon-feeds us nothing, but asks us to assemble the pieces for ourselves.

In short, Lake Mungo provides no real explanations for why this has happened to Alice, but rather focuses on how her death adversely affects the family. Even if ghosts don’t linger when we lose loved ones, memories certainly do. That’s a key truth presented in the film. The presence of memories – like spirits – prevent closure, make family members hold onto hope, and in this case, treat Alice’s bedroom like a shrine.  They keep it untouched.  The Dad imagines encounters with her in the house. Matthew becomes obsessed with Alice, putting her in his videotapes so as to keep her “memory alive.”

But why? To deny the truth that she’s gone? To assuage some sense of guilt that they couldn’t save her?  To feel comfort that some part of her continues?  Lake Mungo is about the irrational impulses we feel when we lose those we love. We would be comforted, oddly enough, by a ghost, because its presence means that death is not the bitter end.

There’s a creepy paradox at work in the film, regarding this point. Alice’s family keeps looking for an “omen” that she is still with them, in some spectral sense. But Alice learned she would die -- and gave up living -- precisely because she saw just such an omen.

Lake Mungo explores what the “end of hope” is really like -- for ghosts and people alike -- and in the process gives genre fans a masterpiece of understated, cerebral horror.

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