JANUARY 31, 2010
For a while, Lake Mungo seemed like it might buck the trend of found footage type movies and deliver something truly unique and great. For starters, it’s not really found footage, but presented as an actual documentary (not unlike the bulk of Poughkeepsie Tapes, though far more successfully depicted) with talking heads and news footage and all that. Unfortunately, the filmmakers allow too many threads to go unexplained or underdeveloped, resulting in a decent film that squanders its promise and above-average presentation.
Mungo sort of unfolds like a long-form episode of Unsolved Mysteries, with news footage about a missing person (in this case, a teenage girl named Alice) who ultimately turns up dead paving the way for speculation and few answers. But Robert Stack isn’t here to frighten us by shouting “UPDATE!” at the end of the film and let us know that the killer had been caught or whatever. Instead, the movie ends without even some text wrapup (gotta be a first for this type of movie), and instead makes the movie even MORE bafflingly over-complicated.
Some spoilers follow!
See, for the first half hour or so, we are told about how the family of the dead girl has been hearing things, and then the ghost of the girl begins appearing in photographs and home videos and such. These moments aren’t particularly interesting, but the explanation IS - it turns out that the girl’s brother has been faking the photos in order to help his mother get some closure (the photos make her decide to dig up the girl’s body - which was bloated from being in the water for a few days - and get DNA testing to confirm that it really was their daughter). But then they notice that their neighbor was caught in the girl’s room in one of the photos, and a whole new storyline opens up. And this is fine (the plot twists unfold much like in the terrific mini-series The Staircase, where a guy is accused of killing his wife and halfway through you find out that he was married before and that THAT wife also died mysteriously), but unfortunately, writer/director Joel Anderson never really follows through with it. It turns out Alice slept with the neighbor (and his wife, or mother - they never really explain the neighbor’s family genealogy) and videotaped it, so they assume the guy was in the bedroom looking for the tape. I’ll ignore the idea that a guy would be able to sneak into a house where the occupants are already paranoid about ghosts and not be noticed (even with video cameras rolling!), but I’m baffled as to why this plot thread ultimately goes nowhere. They tell us that the family has moved away, and that’s the end of it. Um, did they not leave a forwarding address? Isn’t their disappearance a bit strange?
And then out of nowhere, one of Alice’s friends lets them see some cell phone video she shot on a class trip to the titular locale about 6 months before she died, where she claims she can see Alice digging a hole. Now, the video is so blurry and dark that I can’t even make out people from trees, let alone specific people doing specific things, but again, I’ll go with it. But I think it’s a bit late to finally get to what I assume is the point of the movie, and it turns out she was just burying her OWN phone to hide a video that was on there! It’s like a Russian doll in the form of video footage. Now, THAT video is undeniably creepy and will likely scare the shit out of folks watching the movie at home, but again, we get no clear explanation or answers for any of it, which seems a bit puzzling when the film is ostensibly a documentary. The video isn’t shown to experts, the other girls aren’t questioned about what they saw, etc. They watch the video, come up with a half-assed/halfway decent explanation for it, and then the movie more or less ends.
Well, almost. Just to further complicate matters, we then see the photos that we know were doctored by the brother, only this time we see that Alice’s ghost REALLY WAS in the photo elsewhere! Like he Photoshopped her on the left, but her real ghost was off to the right. What? Why go through the whole Photoshop plot thread if her ghost really was haunting them? And since the video shows that Alice encountered her own ghost (they think it was warning her of her impending death) then why is she sticking around after she dies? See, that is the problem with the movie - it continually raises questions but never gives a straight answer for any of them, and overcomplicates what should be a simple and subtle story. Ghosts both real and staged, premonitions, shady psychics (I haven’t even mentioned him), sex tapes, possible murders... I wouldn’t have been surprised if they started tossing aliens or something into the mix. “Upon careful re-examination of the photo, I can see what is, without a doubt, a Triceratops.” It reminded me a bit of 24, where each episode is fine on its own, but when you think about the overall arc, those plot twists simply make zero sense when combined with the other episodes. Lake Mungo is similar with scenes - sure, it’s a great twist to discover that the photos were faked, but not so much when you discover that he didn’t need to fake the photos in the first place.
On the plus side, again, it’s well made, and the faux news footage is so good I began questioning whether or not the story WAS based in reality. The actors are good, another thing that can sink this type of movie (they say “Uh....” a lot and sometimes trip over their words - like real people do and actors PLAYING “real” people always forget to do*). And even with its multiple plot branches keeping the movie from having a focus, the basic story (family coping with their loss) resonates in a way few faux docs manage. It’s the rare film that falters simply because it ends when you think that more resolution is on its way; the director’s credit came up and my mental grade for the film dropped a few notches.
Hopefully the DVD will have some deleted scenes and/or a commentary that can clear some matters up. As it stands, it’s a technically well made film (I am definitely interested to see what Anderson does next), but one that is somehow both over-plotted and vague. There are a few creepy moments (Alice’s cell phone video gave me the willies, not unlike that kid’s birthday video from Signs) and nothing particularly gruesome or explicit, making it a must-rent for teenage girls having a sleepover near Halloween-time, but otherwise, I’d suggest holding out (still!) for Poughkeepsie Tapes.
What say you?
*I later discovered that the film was largely improvised, so these might be genuine “flubs” and not actor’s choices. Also, this means that it’s possible that some of these go nowhere plot threads were improvised and Anderson left them in for whatever reason.