Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns while swimming in the local dam. When her body is recovered and a verdict of accidental death returned, her grieving family buries her. The family then experiences a series of strange and inexplicable events centered in and around their home. Profoundly unsettled, the Palmers seek the help of psychic and parapsychologist, Ray Kemeny. Ray discovers that Alice led a secret, double life. A series of clues lead the family to Lake Mungo where Alice's secret past emerges.
Deceptively simple in its construct and smashingly scary, Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo is a twisting supernatural mystery of international standing, despite its very-Australian suburban milieu.
The unfamiliar faces of the cast and the interview-style device via which the story unfolds add immeasurably to the nerve-jangling suspense Anderson creates. His patience as a storyteller and skill in framing the action so as to maximise his spooky intent, announces him as must-watch director in years to come. Following up on the promise he displayed in his Awgie Award-winning 2002 short The Rotting Woman, Anderson has delivered one of the most impressive debut films from this country in many years.
The tragic accidental drowning of teenager Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) during a family outing devastates father Russell (a stoic David Pledger), mother June (Rosie Traynor) and brother Matthew (Martin Sharpe). The discovery of the body days later should provide sad closure for the family, but unexplained occurrences begin to torment the Palmers as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
Tormented by faith, grief and a sense of misplaced hope that Alice may be trying to contact them, the Palmers set up cameras to record night time activity (providing truly terrifying moments) and stage a séance with local psychic Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell).
As the secret life of Alice Palmer becomes clear and the course of events that led to her death more devastating, Anderson’s film moves from its effectively gripping ghost story premise into a rather sad exploration of an exploited, depressed teenage girl. A series of final reel twists ensure the shock quota is high, both viscerally and dramatically. And don’t deny yourself the film’s final creepy images – stay for the credits"¦
Anderson’s boldest and most triumphant directorial decision was to film Lake Mungo as a documentary. Eliciting wonderfully naturalistic performances from his key cast, the interview-style approach, single-note delivery and use of flashback imagery reminds one of Errol Morris’ landmark factual-film The Thin Blue Line (1988). As if The Sixth Sense had met Dateline, the 'investigative-journalism’ ploy gives weight to the genre machinations and a truly chilling realism to the ghostly manifestations.
There are also several nods to David Lynch’s 1990 cult series Twin Peaks in Lake Mungo’s plot developments, most obviously in the mystery surrounding the life of a dead girl named Palmer.
If Anderson’s inspiration is occasionally obvious, the execution of his ideas is sublime. He intercuts grainy video footage, photo manipulation and mobile phone technology (in a moment that raised a cinema full of bums off their seats at last year’s Sydney Film Festival screening), the young director has created a nerve-rattler unlike any film the Australian industry has produced.