Lake Mungo will keep you awake at night with its horrifying reality.
Authenticity is hiding in every dark corner.
Part of what makes interview footage and documentaries convincing are, ironically, the faker elements.
B-roll cutaways, like someone pulling a file off a shelf or typing on a keyboard. The interview subject speaking with a slightly “rehearsed” tone. Using the interview as voice over on other footage, adding production value. Music to transition between scenes.
When a fake interview or documentary feels TOO raw and off-the-cuff, the cracks begin to show. Because that’s not how interviews are run. I’ve overseen a number of interviews: interviewers are always prompting with questions, and interviewees always have some idea of what they want to say. Interviews and documentaries are produced, just like any other film.
A movie that gets it right is 2008’s Lake Mungo, an Australian supernatural horror film directed by Joel Anderson. Lake Mungo uses a documentary format to tell the story of a young girl named Alice who drowns while swimming. But after she dies, strange imagery starts appearing in photos and video taken around her family’s home… possibly pictures of a spectral Alice, back from the grave. We investigate these strange occurrences through interviews with her family, friends, and other townspeople.
Other found footage/fake documentary movies have logical inconsistencies that take me out of their stories. Why would a supposedly “found” collection of edited footage include minutes-long stretches of a family dinner, for example? If someone were genuinely making a documentary out of raw footage, they’d edit that stuff right out (or get fired for being a bad editor). Movies like the Paranormal Activity series take things too far in the naturalistic direction.
Not so with Lake Mungo, which nails the details to a disarmingly authentic level. I found myself completely lost in the story and characters, forgetting that they were all actors.
It reminded me a lot of something else — BBC’s Ghostwatch from 1992. Both use clever techniques to play with the viewer’s perception. Both use self-scepticism to build trust with the audience. But more importantly, both embrace the production elements of their respective genres. Ghostwatch, a mock BBC special, by having the entire thing hosted by known BBC staff in a real BBC studio. Lake Mungo by using B-roll, audible prompts from off-camera producers, and everything else you’d be unconsciously aware of in a Dateline or 20/20 investigation.
When it comes to horror, I’m a real sucker for grainy images of a shadowy figure that takes a moment or two to spot. Gore, jump scares, psychological terror, all fine. But show me a photo with a barely visible spectre hidden in the background… then slowly zoom in on that figure, until it fills the whole screen…that’ll get my spine tingling.
Lake Mungo has those scares in spades. But it’s about more than simply a supernatural terror. It’s a movie about real emotions. Fear of death. Being trapped by a cycle of mourning and grief. The helplessness you feel when a loved one is having problems you can’t understand, let alone solve. It’s real stuff that we can all identify with, and seeing it in a convincingly real setting makes it all the more powerful.
It being a lower budget found footage indie film from Australia, Lake Mungo was missed by a lot of people. Including myself — I went in thinking it was a Willow Creek-style monster film, and was pleasantly (and terrifyingly) surprised. It shows that “found footage”, if that’s what we’re calling it, doesn’t have to be bargain basement trash. Give Lake Mungo a shot (it’s on iTunes). Just don’t blame me when you can’t get to sleep afterwards.