The mockumentary ghost story from 2009 has found a new audience – and new relevance in a world where no one knows what is real and what is fake.
Lake Mungo would seem to be one of those classic sleeper titles that, in years gone by, would develop organically into cult movies through word of mouth and independent discovery. I’m not sure that we really have cult movies anymore, at least not in the way we used to think of them – nowadays, we seem to use the word ‘cult’ for just about anything that appeals to the ‘nerd’ audience, despite the fact that the films this audience usually watches are huge budget mega-hits, or for films that cynically set out to fulfil what we are led to believe is ‘cult cinema’ – I’m talking about your Sharknados and so on, movies that are described as cult films before they’ve even been released. As with a lot else wrong with modern cinema, I blame Troma for this – they seemed to the first (maybe alongside Charles band’s Empire) to make films that were immediately and cynically marketed as Cult Movies, something that everyone seemed to eagerly buy into. I suppose that the traditional idea of a cult movie – something that you might stumble upon and see something in that both audiences and critics failed to spot, being part of a slowly building audience of people who have all done the same thing and finding a community – is dead in a world of instant information and competing movie websites that are so desperate for content that they will hype virtually anything as ‘cult’.
But I think that we really do still have genuine cult films – they are just not the ones that you’re being told about. Back when I was reviewing a lot of films, it was fascinating – and somewhat disheartening – to see an indie horror movie that was going straight to DVD with little fanfare, but which I would immediately recognise something beyond the workaday in. Alongside Keri O’Shea, I wrote about a bunch of these in our book Horror Out Of Control (a handful of copies still available, so chop-chop) – films that have still not found any sort of an audience and missed the increasingly important festival circuit, and so have languished in the obscurity of poor distribution, minimal (and often negative) reviews and lack of retrospective coverage. Now, as then, a surprising number of genre critics seem oddly unadventurous and unwilling to go outside the established cult canon – which now expands to anything released by a handful of cult labels or anything old and pre-approved enough to hitch your wagon to – and actually discover films for themselves. There is, perhaps, little career advancement to be had in bigging up a film like The Fields or Peacock. That’s perhaps the depressing thing – in their eagerness to be the discoverers of new cult titles, too many people are simply sticking to a very narrow path and then re-writing history (“of course, I had Mike Flanagan pegged as someone to watch as soon as I saw Absentia… I just didn’t review it or talk about it at the time”). But I know that the immediately forgotten films I saw and was knocked out by, the ones I’ve shown to other people (with the mixed results you expect from any genuine cult title)… these films will have other admirers and supporters, and some of them will eventually break on through.
This brings us back, eventually, to Lake Mungo, a film that slipped out quietly to – let’s remember this now – rather mixed reviews from the horror press and fans. Mainstream critics actually liked it more, which is not always (or, arguably, ever) a good thing – when the people who usually hate horror films praise a horror film, we should always approach with caution. The film appeared, essentially unheralded, on DVD in the UK in 2009 and in truth, there was nothing to suggest that this film would be any different from the others arriving for review on a weekly basis – and let’s be clear, a lot of the films that vanish into obscurity do so because they are generic, derivative and immediately forgettable; not everything should become a cult movie, even if it was made in the 1980s.
Lake Mungo, however, immediately stood out as being something interesting. It seemed a cut above the average, and also seemed the sort of film that was going to be immediately dismissed by some people simply because of its gimmicky format. Lake Mungo sets itself up as a documentary, and by 2009, ‘found footage’ movies had become the Nickleback of horror films, inspiring an almost Pavlovian reaction amongst many people. It’s an understandable jerk of the knee to be fair – found footage rapidly became the go-to format for lazy and unimaginative filmmakers who thought – woefully wrongly – that it was an easy way to make a scary movie. After all, it was cheap and you didn’t need to worry about all the technical aspects of real filmmaking – just get out there with your camcorder and some mates, and away you go. In truth, there’s an art to making found footage movies, and that’s why the good ones speak to an audience and scare the living shit out of them, while the others… don’t. But horror movie fans are both oddly traditional and remarkably fickle. Whatever trend is popular in horror at any one time will be immediately hated by the horror curmudgeons. PG-rated horror? Rubbish. Hardcore horror? Also rubbish. Add to this a curious sense of guilt that some people have about being into horror – hence the bigging up of ‘elevated horror’, a form that, in its very name, sneers with contempt at the genre – and an odd disdain for cheap movies (unless they are suitably old and so pre-approved) shown by some people who like to boast of their off-mainstream tastes, and found footage movies were always going to be an easy target.
In truth, Lake Mungo isn’t actually a found-footage film, though the line between those movies and the mockumentary is often a thin one that can be trampled over with ease. But in this case, the film sets itself up as a television documentary, much in the tradition of the endless investigations into the supernatural that fill up the evenings on your more disposable TV channels. It’s closer to – but not as terrifyingly bleak as – the still-underrated Delivery in this sense.
The film tells the story of sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer, who has drowned swimming in a dam. Her family, as they grieve, slowly start to suspect that her ghost is in their home. As they try to find out the truth, dark secrets about Alice’s past start to emerge (rather like another Palmer, Laura, in Twin Peaks). This plays out in the form of interviews, news footage and – of course – home camcorder footage that cleverly messes with the audience’s perception of what might be happening, the mysteries that are unearthed perhaps providing answers that are darker than a mere haunting.
It’s all done very well – apart from one or two still images of Alice’s corpse that don’t look very realistic, this has a remarkable authenticity about it – and any viewer stumbling upon it unaware of its fictional nature would probably be fairly convinced, especially as the film doesn’t offer up any real answers. Early ghostly images are revealed to have been faked, and the film keeps you guessing until the end. Arguably, the creepiest moments come during the closing credits.
Many of its contemporaries used the found-footage format as an excuse for needless padding – you can fill up a lot of running time with people wandering around a haunted asylum in the dark, night-vision on and lots of shouting to cover the lack of anything actually happening. Lake Mungo avoids such filler – the documentary format allows the film to tell its story in a way that is frugal but effective because we are all used to the idea of a narrative moving forward through intercutting talking head interviews and still images. That it plays with the ghost hunting format and then pulls the rug from under it gives the film the feel of an investigation, and rarely has a movie quite pulled off the fake documentary format this well.
The problem that Lake Mungo faces, I suppose, is that while the film itself constructs an authenticity for its fictional world, this is inevitably undercut by the way that most people would see the film. Let’s be honest here – if the DVD sleeve makes it pretty clear that this is a work of fiction, then no one is going to be taken in. Perhaps the era in which the viewers of The Blair Witch Project or Ghostwatch (which this has more in common with) could be tricked into thinking that they were watching the real thing has gone – too much found footage under the bridge, I guess. It perhaps undermines the film in an unfair way, because we are automatically looking for cinematic, fictional artifice even if we don’t realise it. I don’t think that there is a way for anyone to go into this film cold, sadly – even if you show it to someone while hiding the sleeve, I think that we are now too hard-wired to this sort of thing to be easily taken in.
Ironically though, the main impact of found footage has possibly been to make us doubt actual reality – I can’t be the only person who sees a ‘stranger than fiction’ documentary on TV now and wonders if it is all staged. Perhaps the real legacy of the found footage movie is the era of ‘fake news’, where everyone dismisses the information that they disagree with as being staged and automatically believes anything that fits into their existing agenda, no matter how dubious its authenticity is. In a world where the term ‘crisis actor’ is bandied about with gleeful abandon, where inconvenient scientific truths are dismissed and conspiracy theories abound as never before, and where video footage is edited, shown out of context and presented as being something that it isn’t, even the cheapest these films no longer seem so absurd. Fact and fiction, reality and reconstruction are now so blurred that it is hard to make sense of anything. Entire YouTube channels exist that are devoted to content that is more outlandish than the craziest found footage movie, and yet are passed off as the truth. While perhaps not the most financially attractive option for the filmmakers, it may be that the best place for someone to discover Lake Mungo – in terms of the film’s impact on the viewer – would be online, stripped of fiction-revealing credits. Or that might be the worst possible thing to do in a world where huge numbers of people believe that they are being routinely lied to about everything from Covid to UFOs to celebrity Satanic cults eating children.
In this world, don’t be too surprised if some people tell you that Lake Mungo is real. At this point, the film is well known and admired enough to have fancy-pants blu-ray box set editions, but still so far outside the mainstream that there is every chance that it could be edited, reconstructed and reinterpreted online, either maliciously or sincerely. That’s an interesting point that, even when this film was being shot, no one had really thought about. When the Blair Witch Project tricked people into thinking it was real, it was a good selling point and nothing more. In the Fake News era, found footage has the potential to be much more, and that’s something that everyone is going to have to come to terms with, I suspect. As Megan is Missing showed, a film that plays with our understanding of what is or isn’t real can suddenly develop an afterlife far removed from what it originally was.
Is Lake Mungo a cult film, then? Probably, at least as much as anything can be a cult film anymore. Those who were dismissive originally seem to have slowly and quietly changed their tune, and that’s fair enough – no shame in being wrong, and this is a film that could easily not work for many people on first viewing, where the mockumentary style combined with the knowledge that it is definitely a work of fiction might not be a satisfying mix. It’s a film that rewards repeated viewing, allowing the viewer to see more – this is a film of barely-glimpsed mysteries – and admire the twists and turns. It’s perhaps too quiet, slow and lacking in jump-scares for many, and that alone probably means that it will always be more cult than classic (the lines between the two are permanently blurred, of course, but there’s a definite difference).
The mockumentaries and found-footage films that emerged in the first decade of the 2000s now seem more important and prescient than ever – films that played with our concept of what is real and what isn’t, which manipulated our most primal fears in ways that regular narrative films never could, and which feel more authentic in an age where everyone really is filming all the time and where we can never be sure about the reality of what we see – and what we are told it is. In that sense, Lake Mungo feels like a film whose time has come, and if your impressions of what you think it is have put you off to this point, I’d recommend giving it a go.
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