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Film / Lake Mungo

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"I feel like...something bad is gonna happen to me.
I feel like something bad has happened.
It hasn't reached me yet, but it's on its way."

"Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact she kept secrets a secret — which does change the way that you see somebody, I suppose, when you realize that they did hide things from you a bit. I think I knew one Alice and maybe her mum knew another, and there was another one again that none of us knew, maybe."
Kim Whittle

Lake Mungo is a 2008 Australian mystery horror film written and directed by Joel Anderson. It uses a mockumentary format with docufiction and found footage elements.

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 around their home. Profoundly unsettled, the Palmers seek the help of psychic and parapsychologist, Ray Kemeny. Kemeny discovers that there was far more to Alice's life than her family knew, and a series of clues lead the family to Lake Mungo, where Alice's secret past emerges.

Lake Mungo premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on June 18, 2008. It later screened in the US at the 2009 South by Southwest festival and the 2010 After Dark Horrorfest film festival. An American remake was announced as in the works in 2009, employing a producer of The Ring and the writer of Orphan, but it appears to be in Development Hell.

Due to the spoiler-heavy nature of the film, a lot of the trope names are themselves spoilers. Proceed with caution.

This film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: Both Alice and June are dark-haired and have serious problems opening up to other people. This caused them to have a very difficult relationship while Alice was still alive.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Palmers understand Alice better and have the closure to move on from her death, but it's implied that they're no longer aware of Alice, who continues to linger on alone.
  • Body Horror: Alice's bloated, deformed corpse is graphically shown several times in what would definitely be an ethics issue if this were a real documentary. That absolutely pales in comparison to the climactic scene where said bloated corpse is caught on camera stalking Alice before she even dies.
  • The Chain of Harm: Downplayed, but June and Alice never understood each other and had a difficult relationship, which is implied to be one of the main reasons why Alice sticks around as a ghost. June references that she herself had a similar relationship with her own mother while expressing her guilt for her and Alice's strained relationship.
  • Convenient Photograph: Played with multiple times. First, the family thinks they can see Alice's ghost in Mathew's photography, so they set up a camera to go off on timer. Then subverted when it turns out that Mathew planted Alice there. Then played straight when June realizes the photographs actually capture someone breaking into Alice's room. Then played straight a final time over the credits, where photographs are shown that reveal Alice's ghost is still there all along and never left.
  • Failed a Spot Check: The credits reveal that Alice was in Mathew's faked backyard photograph all along, but she was very easy to spot the first time the photo was shown onscreen, if your eyes scanned the screen at all. This makes it seem as though her family didn't spot-check in the least, though the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not her family can notice her.
  • Future Self Reveal:
    • The horrific malformed body that was following Alice in the weeks before her death turns out to be her corpse, or how it will look after she drowns and her body isn't recovered for a week.
    • Alice has a creepy experience of each of her parents being in her bedroom and being unable to hear her. This is because these are apparently their future selves.
  • Genre Roulette: Subgenre Roulette, at least. It starts off being a ghost story, then switches to a Psychological Horror (with the reveal that Mathew has been implementing Alice's "ghost" into the pictures), then it briefly becomes a "small town with dark secrets" mystery after Alice's mother finds the sex tape, then it switches back to being a ghost story.
  • Ghostly Goals: Alice wants her family to find out about her secrets and ultimately understand her.
  • Happier Home Movie: Whenever the Palmers reminisce about Alice, it's usually intercut with this, much like a real-life documentary.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: Downplayed. Alice disappears on the water only days before Christmas; although she doesn't actually die on Christmas, the real horror of the film (the family's grief for her) starts then.
  • Jitter Cam: All of the cell phone footage is extremely erratic, making it hard to make out details.
  • Jump Scare: There is only one, with a very sudden and harsh noise — when Alice encounters her own corpse walking towards her at Lake Mungo.
  • Karma Houdini: As far as we know, Brett and Marisa Toohey were able to sell their house and disappear into obscurity, with a police investigation turning up nothing substantial.
  • Madness Mantra: Combined with a Title Drop. Alice's day planner shortly before her death is filled with the words "LAKE MUNGO" scribbled over and over again in giant font. This is the catalyst for the climactic revelation in the film.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Zig-zagged in-universe. Alice appears as a ghost to her father, but it's unclear if she's really there or if he's hallucinating from his suppressed grief. Then she starts appearing in photographs, but it's revealed that Mathew was faking them to help give his mother closure. Then she starts appearing in footage for real and it's revealed in the credits that she's actually been on film all along, but nobody has noticed. Not to mention that she recorded the image of her own ghost approaching her.
  • Mind Screw: A lot of things in this film will leave you with a lot to think about. What caused those bruises on Mathew? Was it self-harm? What really gave Alice those dreams? Was is just hallucinations? Was it because she may have been pregnant ("the sick feeling")? What created the figure at Lake Mungo? It couldn't have just been hallucinations since she actually filmed it. So was the lake cursed? Did it slowly Mind Rape her and kill her, or was the whole thing as mundane as "a guilt-wracked and very misunderstood girl slowly loses her sanity and falls victim to an accident (or commits suicide)"?
  • Mockumentary
  • Mood Whiplash: After The Reveal of the sex tape and discussion of it with Alice's family, the interview segment with Alice's friends takes place at a public pool, with her friends in bikinis.
  • Mundanger: One of the creepiest moments in the film is when it's revealed that the family's neighbor was caught on camera breaking into Alice's room. The subsequent revelation that he and his wife were molesting Alice and breaking in to try and steal the evidence of it is arguably scarier than the actual ghost.
  • Non-Linear Character: The Reveal suggests that Alice was one. She saw her own ghost days before she died, and she also experienced an odd incident where June came into her room but couldn't speak to her, which only happened to June after Alice had already died, suggesting that was why June couldn't see or communicate with her.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The film predominantly relies on ambiance and haunting still images to convey horror rather than jump scares and gore. Most of all, we never truly find out how Alice died. You could infer it was from drowning since she was last seen in the lake, but the movie never infers she died from drowning specifically.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: June admits that she and Alice didn't have the easiest relationship due to being so similar.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Alice's ghost is pretty standard with the exception that she saw her own ghost before she died.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The opening of the film: a child drowns on a family trip and is missing for weeks until their body resurfaces — right before Christmas. And then her parents, overcome with grief and denial, convince themselves that the body wasn't Alice's to hold onto the small chance that she's secretly alive, only to exhume her body and confirm that it is indeed their daughter.
  • Parental Issues: Alice's family and friends never actually truly understood her.
  • Phony Psychic: Multiple characters express suspicion that Ray is one. It's ultimately ambiguous as to whether he really is, as some of his comments imply he might not believe in what he's doing, but his meditation sessions with Alice and June do genuinely help them make a connection with each other from outside of time.
  • Posthumous Character: The documentary takes place long after Alice's death, but who she really is isn't made apparent until certain revelations come to light.
  • Questionable Consent: Alice was sixteen when she had an "affair" with her married neighbors. Although everyone treats this as though it was consensual (and judging by the sex tape, it nominally was), Alice's psychological unraveling after that and the fact that the husband tries to steal the tape underlines that something else might have been ongoing, at least some form of psychological coercion.
  • Re-Cut: The American release of the film is based on a rough cut of the film while the Australian release was a shorter and tighter cut prepared by the director. The shorter version is generally considered the better one.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Both Alice and June (Alice's mother) had an interview with Ray, and during their hypnotic trances, they were both asked to go into their house and walk around. Alice described that she went to her room and sat on her chair, while June also described herself walking into Alice's room, and Alice continued to describe seeing her mother walking in. This implies that although their trances took place at different times, they were parallel. However, In Alice's trance, she describes that June came into the room, looked around, but left, oblivious to her presence. In June's trance, she described herself coming into the room, seeing it empty, and leaves. Showing us that the daughter waited for the mother, she wanted her to understand her more, but the mother never saw it; she was oblivious to the daughter's true feelings.
  • Scare Chord: One, when Alice's camera footage freezes on her doppleganger face for a while, then suddenly reanimates at high speed with a shocking loud sound.
  • Scenery Porn: There are many lingering shots of the Outback at twilight.
  • Stepford Smiler: Alice, who "kept secrets, and kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."
  • Title Drop: Lake Mungo finally appears in the plot when it's discovered that Alice kept writing about it in her day planner, leading to The Reveal of the most shocking moment in the movie.
  • Twisted Christmas: Alice dies shortly before Christmas, meaning that the family joy of the holiday is juxtaposed with the Palmers' immense grief.
  • Wandering Walk of Madness: June expresses her grief over the death of Alice by walking around the neighborhood late at night and sometimes even wandering around other people's homes.
  • Wham Shot: The video from Alice's cell phone, from her class trip to Lake Mungo, which shows Alice encountering her own corpse. It flips everything about the film and what her family has gone through on its head.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: To Twin Peaks, which was also about a beautiful young woman who is found dead in water, with the investigation afterwards turning up bizarre paranormal events and evidence of a huge, secret double life on the part of the young woman. The fact that both girls have the same last name (Palmer) seals this.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Alice saw her own corpse (and filmed it on her cell phone) while on a class trip to Lake Mungo.