There are as many flavors of horror as they are ways to die on-screen, and they each provide their own sort of aftertaste. Far from the hilariously goopy Frankenhooker or the operatically grisly Antichrist is the grim, deceptively mundane Lake Mungo, which perfectly captures the everyday horrors of grief and the bone-deep sadness that lingers among the living. It’s not fun per se, but it feels necessary — especially in a society in which we bury our grief along with the dead rather than grapple with the realities of loss.
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It’s been 15 years since this faux documentary/ghost story premiered at the Sydney Film Festival, and it’s earned its place on many a horror feature or subreddit as a deep-cut fave for horror aficionados. (One scene in particular was featured in Shudder’s 101 Scariest Moments, though fans looking for something particularly shocking may be disappointed by Mungo‘s slow burn.) Its reputation has been burnished by its obscurity. Even finding a good-quality version to watch has been a challenge until recently.
Lake Mungo has resurfaced on Shudder just in time for Halloween. But the power of this low-budget Australian film lies in the fuzzy corners of each frame, where secrets, memories, and maybe — just maybe — ghosts lurk.
Can you ever truly know another person? Can you outrun your destiny? Stay until after the credits to find out.
What’s Lake Mungo about?
Lake Mungo is not a true story, but it feels like one.
Writer/director Joel Anderson uses a television movie aesthetic to create this faux documentary about a family grappling with the untimely drowning death of their teen daughter, who they fear now haunts their home. The first two-thirds of the film is a family drama, with plenty of overlit close-ups as June and Russell Palmer (Rosie Traynor and David Pledger) and their son Mathew (Martin Sharpe) talk about about the disappearance of teenaged Alice (Talia Zucker) after a day out swimming at a dam near their home in Ararat, Australia. Within the film, it’s a news story that’s swept the nation: the beautiful, popular teen whose friends and neighbors are bereft by the sudden loss.
They’re all struggling in different and horrifying ways. Russell must be the one to identify Alice’s body, and we the audience see what he does: a girl waterlogged, bruised, and ruined. Meanwhile, June takes to creepy-crawling the neighbors’ houses at night when she can’t sleep, as if she could slip into someone else’s life if she tried. On Mathew’s body, strange bruises appear without explanation.
Russell is the first to see Alice’s ghost; she rushes at him and shrieks for him to get out of her room. It’s all-too-typical behavior for any 16-year-old kid, but even now that she’s dead, Alice is trying to protect herself. Or is she protecting her family from knowing something even more dangerous?
“Alice kept secrets,” a friend says at the very beginning of the movie, “She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret.” June and her mum both worry they kept parts of themselves from their respective daughters. It’s a sort of tipping of dominoes that they seem to think led to Alice’s terrible secret, her sadness and shame that somehow manifested in her very drowning.
(And if a family named Palmer mourning their beautiful dead unknowable teen sounds familiar, you’re not the only one.)
Let’s plunge into the third act — and spoilers.
Confronted by confusing paranormal events, the Palmers question not only what they experience but what it means. June believes her daughter may still be alive somewhere; perhaps Russell misidentified the body. So, she enlists the support of a radio psychic, a kindly bespectacled gent who calls himself Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell).
Mathew’s budding photography hobby finds a focus; he sets up cameras all over their house. And here, the eeky-creepy-spooky bits start happening in the pixels of your screen, seemingly photo evidence of Alice. Before long, they’re having a seance. This is not a fun haunted house vibe; this is the desperate grasping of people in mourning who are not ready to let go of their beloved.
But the horrid thing they find is no ghost at all. Alice doesn’t show up at the seance and — worse yet — when they revisit months of footage, what they do see is the crouching figure of their neighbor Brett Toohey (Scott Terrill), whose kids Alice used to babysit. But the Toohey family moved away six months after Alice died. What was he doing hiding in their house?
As the mystery unfurls, Mathew confesses he used double-exposure tricks to make it look like Alice was showing up in his photos and footage, not to be malicious but perhaps because he’s in denial or for lack of anything better to do. The idea that the house is haunted, has ever been haunted, is dropped like a rock.
Does Lake Mungo believe in ghosts? Do you?
Like a magician pulling a scarf out of a hat, June finds the object of Brett’s strange hunt, a safe hidden in Alice’s room containing a datebook with the words LAKE MUNGO in cute bubble letters and a hideous VHS tape that reveals a motive for murder. While the suspect is on the run, the case seems closed.
The more the Palmers learn, the less they understand who Alice was or is. A friend’s cell phone shows Alice’s strange behavior at Lake Mungo on their school trip. Along the way, they discover Alice had met with psychic Ray months before her death. In these powerfully brief scenes, which Ray recorded on VHS, Alice describes a nightmare that sounds both like a horrible premonition about her death and the terrible dream June had about a dripping-wet Alice staring at her from the foot of her bed.
With Ray in tow, the Palmers head out to Lake Mungo to see what might have shook Alice so badly. What was she digging up and burying in that weird wilderness? And there, the dread so thick you can’t believe it, they find her cell phone and other treasures. What they see on the cell phone video is as unbearable as it must have been unfathomable to Alice: her own waterlogged face, bruised and swollen and very much dead staring back at her from the Outback darkness.
“I believe she recorded a ghost,” Mathew tells the camera. “I believe she recorded the future coming to get her.”
If you skip the credits, you miss the true end of Lake Mungo.
Whether you call it a time-slip or a multiverse or simply a ghost, there is something at work in Lake Mungo much bigger than the Palmers can fathom. As they describe the lightness and relief they feel after unraveling the last of Alice’s mysteries, they pack up their home and move. It seems as happy an ending as this family could hope for. Their questions answered, they set off to a new start somewhere else. They feel convinced they did something to help Alice’s spirit along, if it had been still lingering — but even the possibility of a ghost belongs to the past.
But stay through the credits, because as they roll so does Mathew’s previous footage. It shifts slightly to reveal there is Alice, there she is in the seance, there she is in the backyard, and there again in the window of the home they’re posed in front of, bravely smiling. She was there the whole time, and just as in life, they didn’t truly see her. It’s not that they didn’t try, but still, they failed. The adults around Alice failed her in life, and then they failed her in death.
I’ve watched Lake Mungo twice now, and both times it slips from my fingers as soon as the credits roll, leaving its grotesque dreamlike images in its wake. In my mind, Alice is still lingering in her childhood home, and it is the loneliest thing in the world. It’s a haunting fable about loss and grief. What else did they miss knowing about her, before it was too late? What do any of us know about the people we love most?
Lake Mungo doesn’t offer any particular catharsis; there is no justice for Alice, just a little bit of lessening of pain for those who loved her. And as time goes on, maybe that’s all we can hope for.
How to watch: Lake Mungo is available to stream on Shudder or to rent or purchase on Prime Video and Apple TV.