You Wanna See Something Really Scary?

October 16, 2011 at 4:06 am (Uncategorized)

Frank question:

What was the last movie you watched that actually creeped you out?

Now sub-questions.  What was the last movie you watched that made you check the hallways in your house, that had you starting at even the slightest noise, that had you feeling real unease just doing something normal…like looking at old photographs?  To continue this theme, I want to switch straight to the horror-movie genre, and ask a couple more questions.  What was the last horror film you saw that actually had a third act worth the setup of the first two, a horror movie where the ending didn’t feel like the writer and director had no idea what to do to end things and just tacked something stupid and vapid together to get tot he final credits?  What was the last horror movie that stayed with you long, long after you watched it, usefully meditating on human emotions like grief and loneliness?

I want you to seriously consider those questions, and then I want to recommend to you the best shiver-inducing movie I’ve seen in a very long time.   Without burying the lede much more, the movie’s called Lake Mungo, and it is available to watch via Netflix Watch Instantly, or for you Amazon Prime members, through their streaming service.

Before I recommend this flick (and hey, I can already tell this is going to be a very long post, so bear with me here a bit) I want to define some terms for you, so we can weed some of you out.  I will confess that I do not get particularly scared by being grossed out.  Slasher movies do nothing for me.  I find even classic films in this vein, like Halloween or Friday The Thirteenth to be kind of tedious.   I suppose I’ve always bought into pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft’s take on things:  “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”  So yeah, the thing about slasher flicks–or their modern update, the “torture porn” genre as embodied by the awful Saw movies–is that there’s just not a lot of “unknown” going on.  It’s person-on-person violence, and anyone who’s watched Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List (or who has read “Helter Skelter” or even watched CNN for a few months straight) has seen far more brutal and senseless and frightening things than those sort of films are able to bring.

I am also not particularly enamored with “monster-in-the-closet” scares in horror movies.  You know what I’m talking about here, when movies go for the equivalent of jumping out from around a corner and yelling “BOO!” at you.  Yeah, I get it.  I’ll jump.  My pulse will spike.  Congrats.  It’s cheap stuff.  It doesn’t make a lasting impression, and frankly eventually we become inured to it.  We’ve seen Michael Myers not be really dead and get back up behind the unsuspecting hero or heroine too many times.

And so here’s the deal.  If you would like to watch a movie that creeped me way out, that absolutely gave me shivers up and down my spine, that absolutely compromised the quality of my sleep for a few nights, I cannot recommend an Australian film called Lake Mungo enough.  Before you skip out on me to go watch, though, some big caveats.  For starters, this might not be a horror movie at all (and the writer/director Joel Anderson bristles at the film being characterized that way by its distributor).  Marketing it as such does it a real disservice, because audiences used to seeing films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity are going to have some expectations on Lake Mungo, expectations that this film has no desire to cater to.   This is more of a film that deals rather frankly with themes of grief and loss in ways that are far more heavy than what someone looking for cheap scares might be looking for.  It is a quiet movie, a slow-burner, a film that carefully and artfully builds its story one little piece at a time.  It is a movie that will require some investment of you, in other words; as a film to watch with a group of friends after dinner and drinks I would think it would fail completely; this is a film to watch alone or with one or two other folks, where the room is silent and you can just give yourself over to the creepy magic it can weave.

I should also say that this is a “found footage” style film, at least in a sense; not for nothing did I invoke The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity earlier.  The non-spoiler synopsis of Lake Mungo goes like this: it is filmed to appear to be a documentary on an Australian family who suddenly lose their daughter Alice, who drowns on a camping trip (although NOT at Lake Mungo, which is somewhat of an important distinction).  The family begins to suspect that poor drowned Alice Palmer’s ghost has begun haunting them.  Her brother–who is a photography buff, naturally–sets up a camera.  Some very disturbing things are spotted on that film, and the “documentary” explores that.  Here, check out the trailer:

Based on that trailer, you might think you know what this film is about and where it is going.  I’ll tell you that you’re probably wrong.  This is a very moving film; there is a real sense of loss and grief expressed by the Alice’s mother, father, and brother that will get under your skin.  For anyone who’s lost a loved one suddenly, you’ll recognize how shatteringly “true” the family’s sense of loss feels .  The devil is in the details here, and the details are so true-feeling and tragic that your heart breaks for these people. (The description of the car trip home from the campsite, or the mother’s nocturnal walks and where she ends up all sound terribly real.)   That’s a credit to the acting and writing here.  The cast, who are all unknown to me, turn in amazing and believable performances.  The father in the movie particularly got to me.  In his on-camera interviews, he has a sort of wry smile as he discusses the details of the accident and how much he misses his daughter and it comes across as a defense mechanism that I have seen in others in this same situation, that of a man who has no real idea of how to express his own grief, who may still not really have accepted the tragedy that’s befallen him.

Partway through the film, there’s a shocking twist, and as an audience we realize that this is indeed a film about dealing with loss.  But then there’s another twist, and a twist after that, and then more and more.  Writer/director Joel Anderson does a marvelous job of misdirecting us and then springing the surprises of his intricate and beautifully plotted film on us as we go, and suffice to say that nothing is as it seems initially.  Anderson writes a magnificent second act for his movie, and then in a modern marvel of filmmaking involving a supernatural theme, manages to pay it off with a third act that delivers in ways that perhaps only a few ghost-story movies in all cinematic history have delivered.

What’s also cool here is that the Director Of Photography for this movie, a fellow by the name of John Brawley, has a neat blog up about the making of this film.  It might be a bit spoilery, so steer clear until you’ve seen the movie, but then by all means check it out.  There are all kinds of great tidbits in there.  I particularly liked hearing that a great deal of the film was, if not improvised, at least unrehearsed  by the actors involved.  There’s a great scene where the mother decides to consult a psychic and John includes a brief clip of that footage, explaining that the two actors–mother and psychic–were meeting for the first time and in character and did the scene unrehearsed and unblocked for 20 minutes shot through a single camera.  The story reason for this is that the psychic films all his interviews, so that those who consult with him can review their sessions.  In this case, then, there’s a single home video camera shooting it, and after they finished the “no 2nd takes” scene, they discovered a small hair had crept into the top of the frame.  They left it in, and it completely plays into the “found footage” conceit of the film.  You can find John’s blog here, but again….spoilers!

Watch Lake Mungo through the credits and then rewind it, because you’ll have to.   If you’re like me, you’ll have trouble getting this remarkable little movie out of your head.  It is a film that clearly begs discussion (and boy do I have some things I’d like to discuss about it) but perhaps we save THAT for the comments section?  At any rate, I’m pleased to tell you that Lake Mungo is available as a Netflix Watch Instantly selection.  Turn the lights out, get under the covers, put your expectations of what a movie that might or might not be about ghosts aside, and let it work its magic.


  1. David Goode said,

    Finished watching it just a bit ago, and you’re right that we can’t sleep! One thing my wife mentioned was that however bad the disturbances were for the girl’s family that they must have been ten times worse for the neighbors. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Christien Murawski said,

    Really good post, Chris. I’m glad you linked to it (and happy you clued us in that it’s available on Instant again…thanks for that). I have not seen it in quite some time, but your review immediately teleports me back to how I felt watching it for the first time. Terrified and constantly looking out the sliding glass door of my office to check on my family. I get chills just thinking about it.

    Nicely done.


    • Chris said,

      Thanks for the kind words Christien! If it hadn’t been for you folks talking about it on the QT3 Movie Podcast (which if you’re not a subscriber of, you need to be: ) I’d have never heard of Lake Mungo. What’s interesting to me is that by rights, this film shouldn’t hold up well to repeat viewings, but I’ve seen it three or four times now and I have enjoyed it immensely each time. I guess that’s a tribute to the idea that this movie is about more than some ghost photography, eh?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: