Films fail to find their audience on release for a variety of reasons. There’s bad timing – the box office failure of the wonderful Tremors in 1990 is often ascribed to the film unfortunately being released in close proximity to a serious earthquake that hit California. There’s poor marketing, Disney has had a mare with this recently with terrible campaigns for both John Carter and The Lone Ranger (it should be noted that there are many excuses trotted out for flop movies too). There’s Harvey Weinstein and his predisposition to buy movies and then shelve them.
Some films just never get their fair crack at an audience, languishing in obscurity until if they are lucky they can find an audience through word of mouth and become ‘cult’. That’s the whole purpose of this ‘hidden treasures’ strand of the blog. I’m scouring my back catalogue of reviews for films that you may have missed and this entry is a real favourite of mine from the last few years, a film that I watched while my wife was away on a business trip that made me – a lifelong horror fan in his forties – check my locks and sleep with the light on.
In 2005 16-year-old Alice Palmer goes missing during a family outing at a lake in Victoria, Australia. Police send her distraught family home to await the results of a search by divers. Her body is discovered several days later. Soon after the family begins to experience mysterious phenomena in their home, and come to believe that Alice is trying to make contact with them.
Filmed and presented as a faux-documentary 2008’s Lake Mungo sounds in synopsis like a rip off of the previous year’s found footage chiller Paranormal Activity. In fact in style, tone and effect Joel Anderson’s film is quite different from Oren Peli’s 2007 hit, and many of the found footage and mock documentary films that have appeared in the wake of The Blair With Project (itself inspired by the notorious Ruggero Deodato 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust).
Most of these films present themselves as constructions made from found footage with no sign of the filmmaker who has taken this material and edited it into a finished film. Although Lake Mungo contains photographs, video camera and phone camera footage supposedly shot by characters in the story this is presented in a documentary framework. The principle characters are interviewed on camera, we can hear the voice of a director asking questions. This is intermingled with footage of the locations presumably shot by the documentary crew. To all intents and purposes it looks like a professional documentary.
Other mock documentary horror films avoid this approach for the obvious reason that it reduces tension, if a character is interviewed on screen they then cannot die in the course of the narrative, if a character is only talked about then there’s every chance they will die. However it’s not a problem here, because Lake Mungo is a mystery and it’s principal subject is the dead girl Alice. Why did she die, and is she the source of the disturbances in the Palmer household? This is just the starting point of the story, as the film progresses the mystery of the girl’s death and the nature of subsequent events grow ever darker. What initially looks like a straightforward haunted house story becomes something quite different.
Although unlike his films in form and style, Anderson’s film reminded me most of David Lynch – is it a coincidence that the surname of the family in LAKE MUNGO is Palmer? There is something of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in the way each twist in the tale reveals an ever deepening chasm of darkness beneath the apparently tranquil Victoria suburb of Ararat. “Alice kept secrets” says a school friend at the start of the film, “she kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret.” Like the ill-fated Laura Palmer of Lynch’s TV series, Alice Palmer also has a diary that when discovered opens the door to deeper mysteries. Like Bill Pullman’s apartment in Lost Highway, every corner of the Palmer’s family home becomes filled with a sticky darkness in which something disturbing lurks.
This will not be a film for everyone, there is no gore, there is little in the way of conventional shocks moments, it is extremely low key. But if you wait until dark, draw the curtains, and submit to its fragile spell this is a film that is genuinely creepy and creates a palpable sense of awful dread. Ultimately Lake Mungo packs a powerful emotional punch with an ending that reverberates long after the film has finished.