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Jonbenét, Twin Peaks, and Bad Photoshop: A Look Back on Lake Mungo

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

While not the most overused idea in horror, mockumentaries quickly gave way to the found footage craze of the mid-aughts. There is a distinct difference between mockumentaries and found footage, though I feel like they constantly get lumped together. The idea of a mockumentary is to string a narrative together through the normal means of a documentary, while the purpose of found footage is, well, footage that was found and pieced together to tell a story. These two subgenres can definitely go hand in hand, I think it’s important to have that specific distinction between them because they really tackle the same idea through two different means of storytelling.

The three remaining Palmers stand in front of their house, as the ghost of their daughter stands longingly in the window behind them

There was one specific mockumentary I didn’t really give the time of day when I first watched it, but upon multiple friends telling me to go back and watch it, I did. Boy were my initial thoughts far off from my recent viewing. The ’08 film Lake Mungo was written and directed by Joel Anderson. Per IMDb, this film is the only feature written and directed by him, and that’s a damn shame. When it comes to mockumentaries and found footage one of the most important aspects you must have is the authenticity behind the feeling AND the reason there are cameras rolling. Lake Mungo does a good job of bringing both of those aspects to a chilling conclusion. Does Lake Mungo hold up almost 14 years later? Let’s take a look at Twin Peaks: Lake Mungo. (Yes we will cover the weirdly coincidental parallels to Twin Peaks.)

Joel Anderson’s only feature film follows the Palmer family: mother June (Rosie Traynor), father Russel (David Pledger), and son Matthew (Martin Sharpe) as they mourn the loss of their daughter Alice (Talia Zucker). Alice died in a lake, not Mungo while swimming with her brother Matthew. After an extensive search, Alice’s bloated and disfigured body is found a few days later. Each family member has their own way of dealing with the loss of Alice, whereas a typical horror film would have that drive a wedge between the family this film kind of uses that as an opportunity to bring them together as one collective group of mourners. The framing device of this story is akin to something like Making A Murderer or The Keepers where it starts as a straightforward documentary and twists and turns are slowly sprinkled throughout.

One of the greatest strengths of this film lies within its almost tameness. There are no jumpscares, no overly grotesque moments (with the exception of Alice’s body), the right amount of sex, and a compelling supernatural angle. There is a level of ambiguity throughout the majority of the film that acts as the horror angle before giving way to a straight-up supernatural story. What this film does really well though is the absolutely melancholic tone this film takes on. Since this is a mockumentary, rather than a documentary, Anderson has the liberty of crafting the narrative to fit the specific tone he is going for. This lead me to forget multiple times that I was watching a film rather than an actual documentary. Granted I knew I was watching a film the whole time, it’s just a testament to how well Anderson created this story and the succinctness of his direction.

The Palmers sit around a table with psychic Ray in an attempt to contact their dead daughter

The whole supernatural backdrop of the film immediately goes by the wayside once we find out Matthew has been altering the photos and videos he provided as proof of Alice’s death. Initially, it seems as if Alice is haunting her domicile due to not being able to move on in the afterlife until we find out the images and videos we are seeing have been altered as a way to kind of help his mother move on. At least, that’s what the film tells us. I think there may be a more insidious nature to this, and that leads me to one of the biggest theories I have about Lake Mungo. This is somewhat of a JonBenét Ramsey scenario.

Not to diverge from the film too much, my running theory of the JonBenét Ramsey case is that her brother killed her due during a sexual assault. There is a roughly one to two-minute montage after the reveal of Matthew doctoring the footage of Alice where he films her at weird moments without her realizing it, there are shots of him staring at her, and just some really uncomfortable moments of him gawking at her. I believe Matthew found Alice’s sex tape, was jealous of her boyfriend and drowned her in the lake. Why else would she appear to herself to warn her of her imminent death? I think it wasn’t an ominous encounter at Lake Mungo, I think it was almost like an Until Dawn death totem. Matthew was the last person to see Alice alive, he knew he could never have her. Matthew may say he doctored the images of Alice to act as a conduit for the reasoning behind having Alice’s body exhumed, I think it was him trying to cope with the feelings of not having the subject of his sexual desire around anymore.

Since I’m over here throwing theories around I did want to take a moment to point out some odd coincidences between Lake Mungo and Twin Peaks, which may be cursory but it was too obvious for me not to mention anything. To start the family’s last name is Palmer. Obviously, that is not a definitive connection, but out of all the names Anderson could pick that was an interesting choice. Like Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Alice has deeply buried secrets, mainly involving sex. It doesn’t really make sense to throw the affair Alice was having with the neighbors, it didn’t really have an effect on the death of Alice so to put it in there seems almost out of place.

Also Laura Palmer there is a heavy reliance on moving the story forward with the use of their diary. Granted there isn’t a hunt for the diary like in Twin Peaks, but there is still a reliance on it in Lake Mungo story-wise. What really sold it for me is when we see the video Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) took of his session with Alice is how she mentions the constant nightmares she has been having, again like Laura where she has the constant nightmares of Bob. Ray’s character acts as a sort of amalgamation between Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) and Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen). Am I reading into this too much? Probably. I just can’t get through this film without having these parallel ideas go unnoticed. 

Lake Mungo is a film that really stands out amongst the mockumentary subgenre

A still of video Matthew shot showing his deceased sister

The Poughkeepsie Tapes tried to do what this film does but failed miserably. When you make a mockumentary you have a task to create as authentic of an environment as possible, and Lake Mungo does that to wonderful extremes. While not your typical supernatural film, I think there is enough emotional substance here to craft an overwhelmingly compelling piece of horror that will sit deep in the back of your mind for days, if not weeks.

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  1. I think your reading of the film is entirely correct and I’m surprised it hasn’t been given more often. The Palmer reference hints at this sub-plot to guide viewers in the right direction. The covetous shots taken by the brother with his sister telling him to get out of her room/ go away are definitely also meant to point his in this direction as are (as someone else pointed out in a comments section) the bruises on his arms, indicative of a struggle. The film is about Alice trying to reclaim her narrative from her brother.

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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