Saturday, February 4, 2017

Women in Horror: Lake Mungo

16 year old Alice Palmer was swimming in a local dam with her brother on a normal day in Ararat, Australia. He got out because he was cold and then noticed a short time later that his sister was gone. The search for her overtook their town and her body was eventually discovered. A short while later, her brother and some strangers on the beach notice a figure in their pictures and videos that look disturbingly like Alice. These instances call into question if Alice is a ghost or if she's still alive that launch the family's investigation of Alice's secrets which are much more dark than they ever expected.

Lake Mungo is told in a documentary style that focuses on interviews with the family, police, friends of Alice, and the family's neighbors as well as photos, home videos of Alice, and many other videos taken by the family, strangers, and Alice herself. When I heard her name, I immediately though of Twin Peaks and Laura Palmer, who also died tragically and proved to have many secrets and hidden depths. Lake Mungo is lot more realistic than Twin Peaks and plays with the idea that Alice is alive and then, when that is proven wrong, that she is a ghost.

The main crux of the film is the family coming to terms with her death, learning the truth about her life, and moving on. Alice;s brother Mathew decides to create a photo that has Alice clearly in the shot because he feels that it still needs to be investigated. At the same time, some strangers on the beach also have eerie footage that looks like Alice and her body is exhumed for a DNA test. Mathew's actions, while well meaning, caused his family to think she's alive and then dashing their hopes when her death is confirmed. I was surprised at the strength of the family. The majority of couples separate after the death of a child. They were so well acted that their love and sympathy for each other is obvious in every scene.

Throughout this time, the family has been plagued with weird sounds and slamming doors at night, prompting them to put up video cameras. Most of the Alice footage was again faked by Mathew, but one proved to be real, making the family think they are being haunted. Upon a closer look, one of the figures was actually a neighbor looking in Alice's room for something. When a secret box is found, Alice's double life of sleeping with the neighbors when she was supposed to be babysitting was revealed. By the time this was discovered, the guilty couple and their family had moved away months ago. This detail is pretty shocking to her loved ones, but I loved that no one slut shamed her or thought less of her. They seemed more confused and upset at the couple who exploited her than anything.

Later, video footage of Alice's trip to Lake Mungo surfaces, showing that she was upset during a trip full of partying and drinking. The family goes to the site and digs up the spot where she was shown burying a bag of things. They discover her favorite bracelet and her cell phone, possession that were important to her. On her phone, they find a video of a figure approaching her, very similar to how she looked after she drowned. This is one of the scariest moments of the film. It seems she knew she would die and wasn't the happy, sunny person that they thought they knew. This pilgrimage led to finding the last piece of Alice that could tell them anything about her.

Whether or not a ghost exists, Alice is haunting them because her tragic death left a hole in their lives and in  their family. At the very end of the film, undiscovered hidden pictures of Alice are found in numerous videos and pictures, even those photoshopped by Mathew. There's an argument for both a literal ghost and the family simply seeking closure for their grief. I like the ghost angle myself and it shows that this girl wanted her family to get to know the real her better after death. The first thing that happens to anyone after they die is that they become idealized in the minds of the people they leave behind. This film is a grieving family's journey to get to know someone who hid a great many things from them. The mother is hit the hardest because she feels she held back and didn't always show Alice how much she was loved.

Lake Mungo is a quiet film that gets under your skin. It doesn't have jump scares or action scenes or scary monsters. It has a deep unease that stays with you. Each instance of grainy footage had me frantically looking for the hidden details that I still missed. At its core, the family and their sorrow color every scene of the film. This journey of theirs with all its pitfalls helped them move on and know Alice better as she was: flawed and not as happy as she seemed. I don't think it's for everyone because it has a slow pace and isn't a showy or obvious film, but it's definitely worth your time if you have the patience.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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