In the late nineties, horror seemed to be eating itself up in a self-referential, postmodern feeding frenzy of smug knowingness and reflexive irony, borne on the aftermath of the success of Wes Craven’s “Scream” franchise and the inevitable onslaught of genre-savvy post-postmodern imitators it spawned. Scariness is necessarily forsworn when you’re actually dependent on your audience knowing what’s going on, what’s coming next; to pick up on every self-aware hint -- with hyper-orchestrated ‘Lewton Bus’ stabs remaining the only means of generating brief but ultimately unsatisfying moments of frisson before events settle back into their usual comfortable genre-routine once more. The unfamiliarity of Japanese horror conventions offered an initial way out of this impasse for a brief time in the early noughties -- until we realised that they too were as heavily codified as those of the most unimaginative ‘80s North American slasher flick; the potency of the sub-genre quickly became sadly muted by the sudden deluge of imports and the inevitable English language remakes.
The other attempt to inject true terror back into the genre took the lessons learned by the revival of Japanese supernatural horror to heart, but utilised them in a form that played with our, by now inescapable, postmodern awareness of the workings of media and genre – seeking to unsettle us instead by blurring the edges between what we have learned to automatically accept as being real and what is not, adopting aesthetic forms and techniques familiar from the documentary format to bring a new sense of immediacy to what was essentially still the time honoured camp fire ghost story of yore.
The bluntest example of this form was Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), which became an unexpected phenomena through the simple expedient of being the first to come to light (Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s “The Last Broadcast” was made before it, but only came to be widely known about subsequently) and therefore actually managing to fool a number of neophyte festival audiences that it’s claim to present verbatim the raw, unedited found footage of a bunch of film students making a documentary on the Jersey Devil legend, was actually a truthful one. The film took a device, already effectively wielded by 1980’s “Cannibal Holocaust” -- a product of the heady days of Italian exploitation horror, directed by Ruggero Deodato -- of faking (and in the case of the animal cruelty it depicted, not faking!) atrocity footage in mimicry of the popular Mondo documentary format (which itself often faked its output) then common in Italy and successful abroad.
But Myrick and Sánchez were also the unwitting Punk Rock architects of a new do-it-yourself filmmaking aesthetic. Deodato framed his blurry 16mm fake footage within the parameters of a safe, conventional, scripted narrative, in which characters are shown watching the material back on a cinema screen and reacting accordingly. The faux documentary effect is to some extent neutered then, by a film-within-a-film format. “The Blair Witch Project” simply ditches any explanatory or distancing framing material; what you see is what you get: jerky motion video camera footage, the students’ (all played by struggling unknown actors) attempts to conduct interviews with locals, and their connective linking narrative material; and, when things go wrong, the cataloguing of their increasing terror and insanity once whatever is lurking beyond the frame of the camera starts to close in on them and they’re too far gone to remember to switch the cameras off when they’re running away from supernatural terror.
This meant that what we actually saw didn’t in any way have to be expertly framed or filmed; the rawness of the footage was enough on its own to create the illusion of reality necessary in creating the film’s sense of creeping dread. No scoring was needed; certainly no proper story was required because this was supposed to be, after all, ‘real life’. Myrick and Sánchez happily took co-writing and directing credits on the flick, but a great deal of it was improvised on location and most of it was necessarily shot by the actors themselves. The two filmmakers even left the group alone at night in the woods without telling them exactly what was going to occur, except that they should leave the cameras running to capture their own reactions. “The Blair Witch Project” was DIY, low-fi, punk rock filmmaking par excellence, and it seemed to offer the perfect means for new filmmakers to make a mark without having to bother with studios or budgets or even any kind of technique.
Consequently, the mockumentary form has become understandably popular with the indie ghetto digital video filmmaker, but few subsequent examples of the sub-genre have managed to recreate the effect of Myrick and Sánchez’s original film. Nobody can afford to rely on the ultra-basic template adopted by “The Blair Witch Project” anymore, so the most common approach is to construct a faux documentary in a similar vein to “The Last Broadcast” (1998) which, although it never received anything like the attention shouldered by its more successful contemporary, was ultimately a far more satisfying piece of work -- convincingly mimicking a cheap cable channel documentary format with almost satirical accuracy, to deliver a creepy mystery story that pulls the rug out from beneath audience expectations in the final minutes. Most attempts by new filmmakers to take up the mockumentary mantle since then have been less than impressive, though. The format actually requires brilliant actors in order to make it work at its best, since trying to create the illusion that the participants are not really acting at all is actually a much trickier job than one might imagine. It’s a resource not usually available to newer filmmakers, who often have to make do with an amateur cast made up of friends and family members, plonked in front of the lens in substitute for professional actors. Most of these efforts don’t even attempt the ghost story angle, usually plumping for the “Man Bites Dog” serial killer storyline instead (in which the killer is either having a film made about him/her or else making a film about their own crimes instead), and are really just off-the-peg slashers in another format making use of the inherent cheapness and freedom of the DV shooting medium.
The bigger multiplex films have occasionally toyed with the idea -- sometimes coming up with effective new angles like the post 9/11 monster movie “Cloverfield” and the medium scale Spanish zombie-flick-in-the-raw “REC”. Recently, the bigger studios have finally caught up with the concept of the untampered-with raw-footage idea that originally underpinned “The Blair Witch Project” back in 1999, now that phone cameras and the ubiquitous availability of quality digital video-camcorders have made the idea that people might stand around and video unnameable horrors, rather than trying to help or escape from them, depressingly plausible. Thus we had the raw video documentation of a ‘tru-life’ exorcism angle in the occasionally effective “The Last Exorcism” and the daft-couple-film-their-house’s-poltergeist-manifestation idea selling the surprisingly hopeless “Paranormal Activity”. The unaccountable success of that egregiously bungled piece of work at least displays the potential that the format still seems to hold for audiences. But it’s taken this debut by Australian writer-director Joel Anderson to really take the horror mockumentary genre by the scruff of the neck and show what it can really do, in the utterly, utterly terrifying (and I speak as someone who doesn’t use that word lightly) “Lake Mungo”.
For some reason it’s taken the film a full three years to finally find its way to DVD in the UK, and there is always the possibility that it will now slip out, unannounced and unheralded, into obscurity -- even though Second Sight have at last done the decent thing and given it this fine release (although this region 2 disc is unhappily devoid of any extras whatsoever). The difficulty for the prospective reviewer is that “Lake Mungo” is one of those films that work best with as little prior knowledge going in as possible before viewing it. Anderson precisely captures the feel, the tone and the technique of a certain kind of true life narrative which has become quite popular over the last five years or so: that of the sophisticated, well-produced ‘Storyville’ documentary feature that’s often to be found buttressing the schedules of TV channels like BBC4 or More4 in the UK, and which usually recount a human interest story or investigate a mystery in a similar style to that of the acclaimed work of Errol Morris in films such as “The Thin Blue Line”. Such documentaries are lushly scored, feature little or no voice-over narrative but instead unfold a version of events as recounted by a number of interview subjects while making use of everything from artfully deployed reconstructions and off kilter poetic images, to family photographs, contemporary news footage and home movies shot by the subjects themselves. Anderson recreates the form with pitch perfect verisimilitude. Five minutes in and the thought that this is completely scripted fiction vanishes from the mind in a way that’s not even true of those many faux found footage efforts which think that wobbly video images are enough in themselves to create the illusion of truthfulness.
The primary fact to be borne in mind is that Joel Anderson has written one profoundly affecting ghost story here; the mockumentary format is the style he’s chosen to adopt for the purposes of telling it, and it proves itself the most effective choice in that the form allows the more familiar motifs of standard ‘haunting’ narratives to rediscover their power once more, and for the persistent illusion created by such a persuasive mock documentary style to be used to subvert our expectations on more than one occasion in a highly disturbing fashion. The film slowly works on our complacencies to evoke a real sense of unease and an increasing anticipation of what might be coming; fairly early on in a palpable dread starts to haunt its every frame.
In this case, the synopsis is something that ought to be kept as brief as possible: a sixteen year old girl called Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowns in a lake while on a family picnic in the Australian city of Ararat, in the south-west state of Victoria. With testimony from her family (the father Russell [David Pledger], mother June [Rosie Traynor] and troubled teenage son Mathew [Martin Sharpe]), family friends and others who subsequently become involved in the story, the film recounts in authentic documentary style the story of what happened next.
That is literally all you’re going to get from me on that front, because the clever series of elaborate re-evaluations the viewer is later forced to perform over the course of the tale’s atmospheric recounting, are really instrumental in the film building its increasingly unsettling vibe. There’s nothing more disquieting than an outrageous, apparently unbelievable story being told in calm measured terms by someone who seems quite sane and rational. Here the strange narrative is supported and authenticated by faded family snaps; the local news footage (taken from a convincingly blurry video dupe) shot on the day of Alice’s disappearance; home movies, tape recordings; and – horribly – police footage of the body being recovered at night from the freezing water and unpleasantly realistic close-up mortuary shots of the twisted, water-bloated features of the corpse. The latter stuff brings to mind the sickly, Mondo-style “Face of Death” pseudo-documentary series that delighted in presenting footage of real autopsies and amateur recordings of real-life suicides and such like, for the delectation of the pathologically prurient (although much of their content turned out to be faked as well!). Taking the slow, atmospheric build-up approach, Anderson has the family recount their differing reactions to the sudden death of the teenager. Russell takes solace in his work; June becomes disturbed and inconsolable -- much taken to dreaded nightmares in which she encounters an apparition of Alice standing dripping wet at the foot of the bed. She also takes to wandering around the neighbourhood at night and breaking into other people’s houses. Meanwhile, the dead girl’s brother Mathew takes solace in his photography projects. At the same time, noises -- unidentifiable bangings and scrapings -- start to occur in the house at night, so Matthew sets up video recorders all around the house to try and solve the mystery
So far, so normal. Naturally, some of Mathew’s apparently benign and rather dull photographs of the family’s backyard appear to reveal something that shouldn’t be there when examined in fine detail -- and the grainy videotape recordings show a mysterious shadow figure moving about the house in the middle of the night when the image is isolated and blown up. Although this seems to be standard “Paranormal Activity” territory, it’s particularly well done here, and the effect is considerably enhanced by the fine acting and the never less than totally convincing air of realism surrounding Anderson’s mimicry of this particular documentary form. The film continues: the family next make friends with a professional psychic called Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) who initially comes on board to help by holding hypnotherapy sessions for the distraught June, and eventually agrees to hold a séance for the family as a whole, which Mathew once again records for posterity.
Half an hour into the film, though, the material unexpectedly goes on a completely outré diversion, taking the film away from the standard ghost story structure, with the result that the viewer finds he/she is suddenly on unfamiliar ground, with no idea where the tale might potentially go next. The film performs several of these tricksy narrative manoeuvres, but its most vivid effects come about through the adoption of an idea used most effectively during Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up”, where an apparently innocuous photographic image turns out to contain extra information, when it is minutely studied, that radically transforms one’s original interpretation of the scene. Dario Argento’s conjuring trick variant of the same idea in “Profondo Rosso, where the attention of the viewer is diverted away from a relevant aspect of the image in question, and is drawn instead, through misdirection, towards an entirely different part of the screen altogether, is also cleverly adapted here by Anderson to augment the increasing sense of the ordinary being invaded by the uncanny. An unexpected but potent influence must surely be David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” (although the brooding style is more in the line of his “INLAND EMPIRE” or “Mulholland Drive”) and the adoption of the family name ‘Palmer’ is surely no coincidence in that respect. Alice Palmer, like Laura before her, turns out to have a secret life: strange, perverse, personal interrelationships; the taint of abuse and a secret diary which eventually reminds the Palmers of an old school trip Alice once took to Lake Mungo -- a forbidding dry lake tourist spot in New South Wales. This is a culturally and historically significant area since, in real life, Lake Mungo is the site of the discovery of the oldest human remains to ever have been excavated in Australia. The discovery of previously unknown camera phone video footage taken by Alice and her school friends at the lake at night, leads to the single scariest moment I’ve seen in a horror film in the last twenty years (it comes approximately 70 minutes in) and the realisation that this film is actually something rather special indeed. Joel Anderson has rediscovered and revivified the dark emotions that made “Ringu” so scary back when Sadako first crawled out of her Well and through a Japanese television screen. “Lake Mongo” is an exceptionally well-crafted and compellingly told supernatural mystery story that examines mortality, grief and mourning with quiet intelligence and offers an incisive commentary on the dysfunctional, non-communicative suburban family and its secrets. It excels in appearing to cleverly solve one apparently inexplicable mystery, but only then leaves an even greater, scarier and much more incomprehensible one in its place. It is also bloody terrifying! You have been warned.