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Lake Mungo
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by MP Bartley

"An interesting take on a well-trodden genre."
3 stars

Turns out there might just be life left in the found footage/fake-documentary idea after all.

It's easy to see why the found footage subgenre appeals to budding directors just starting out on their careers. Generally pretty cheap, the claim to truth that they carry with them gives the best of them a frisson of "this really happened" fear that, when applied properly, can deliver the frights in spades. Applied properly is the key statement of course, as the likes of The Devil Inside show that it's not an infallible genre of itself.

Lake Mungo takes the approach of a documentary complete with talking heads, interviews and, yes, the discovery of some shocking video footage. The Palmer family are mourning the loss of their 16-year-old daughter, Alice, who has drowned while swimming in the local dam. It seems however, that her spirit is not content to leave them house as they begin to sense an agitated presence in their house. In due course psychics are contacted, cameras are set up to film the house in the dead night and seemingly benign photos of not very much turn out to have recorded something very creepy indeed.

It's an approach that is more of a psychological bent, than of the simple "Boo!" approach favoured by Paranormal Activity and its ilk. Interestingly, it's genuinely concerned with grief and how people deal with the loss of a family member. That leads to late in the day developments that throw fresh light on the paranormal disturbances plaguing the Palmer family and make the film a horror where humanity is what should be feared, not what lies beyond in the afterlife.

Director Joel Anderson doesn't skimp on the paranormal stuff, however. Moving figures are glimpsed in the background of video tapes and ghostly apparitions make their presence known elsewhere. It's not the most convincing attempt at portraying ghosts going bump in the night, however, and while his psychological approach is laudable, it does mean that the film doesn't ever stir itself up into any genuine feelings of dread or tension. Paranormal Activity had a genuine unnerving build up of fear every time it switched to the nighttime camera - the ambition of Lake Mungo has led to it sometimes forgetting why its concept can be so effective.

Anderson does throw in a late-act curveball that is either very cleverly placed, or suggests that he lacks the courage of his convictions. Let's be generous to him and go along with the idea that the ambiguity of the climax was what he was building to right from the start - after all, it does lead to the one nerve-frazzling moment in the film (and ironically it comes from some found footage) and rather pleasingly ends the film on more questions than answers. Some films fall flat on their face trying to do that - Anderson's smarts make it work.

Ultimately, it is the type of film that you'll admire rather than love. But it demonstrates that there are still stories to be told on a recovered camcorder that doesn't have to end on a demon screaming into the lens; and if Anderson can build on this promise, he may well be one to watch. And for both those facts we should be grateful.

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originally posted: 03/20/12 03:26:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 23-Mar-2010


  DVD: 23-Mar-2010

Directed by
  Joel Anderson

Written by
  Joel Anderson

  Talia Zucker
  Rosie Traynor
  David Pledger

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