Ghostly shenanigans are dryly delivered in the ambitious, restrained and well-mounted Oz mockumentary “Lake Mungo.” A 65-minute slow burn to one impactful scare, pic brims with ideas along the way. Joel Anderson’s feature bow falls short of Lynchian labyrinth, but his collaboration with talented lenser John Brawley is an atmospheric gem that signals clear potential for bigger and darker things. Pic could be difficult to market unless auds are willing to fall for the “Blair Witch” stunt twice, but will make a classy entry in fantasy events or fest sidebars. Local release date is currently undecided.
The credit sequence is illustrated by spooky Victorian-era B&W photos that hint at spiritualism, with teenage Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) fearfully speaking of impending, but unspecified, events in v.o. When the pic begins in earnest, narrative uses faux TV news and docu interview footage with Alice’s parents, Russell (David Pledger) and June (Rosie Traynor), and brother Mathew (Martin Sharpe), to reveal Alice drowned in a lake (not the titular lake, however) near the family’s home in the country town of Ararat.
Family members and friends outline their memories of what transpired in the days between Alice’s disappearance and the retrieval of her body. Soon, Mathew’s already evident interest in photography and cinematography (his video camera supplying some of the background material for the docu-within-the-mocku) begins to consume him.
When a murky figure turns up in photos taken around the scene of Alice’s death, Mathew sets up his vidcam to see if he can capture the phantom on video, and a ghost resembling Alice is evident in playback.
The mock-docu framework comes dangerously close to becoming an overexposed conceit when Anderson slips in some unexpected plot reversals. A couple of these enrich the narrative but others suggest Anderson didn’t know when enough was enough. Nevertheless, pic’s structure shows that, despite some exploratory dead ends, helmer had a very precise idea of what he wished to achieve overall.
A substantial amount of the movie is shot on handycams and mobile phones in often under-lit locations, with even an early sequence on Super-8 for no apparent reason. Helmer makes smart use of 16mm for interview sequences, and of glorious 35mm for time-lapse sequences. Latter are well-served by Fernando Corona’s moody music, which complements the main score by David Paterson. Combination imbues pic with a visual grace and restful pace that enhance the plethora of edgier, video formats.
Thesps were given plot points to hit, but no actual script, and it shows. Actors improvise well enough but frequently use language inconsistent with their characters.
Sound design by Craig Carter is impressive. Title refers to a dry lake 500 miles west of Sydney that’s archeologically and geologically significant.