Found Footage Fave: Lake Mungo (SPOILERS!)

What’s the horror: ghosts

Does the dog die? Nope

Gore factor: None – just a few shots of a drowned body

Re-watch scale: Heavy rotation, in more ways than one

Lake Mungo is my favorite kind of found footage: mockumentary style. It follows The Palmer family – mom June, dad Russell, and brother Matthew – and the bizarre events surrounding the death of the daughter, Alice. The director, Ausstralian Joel Anderson, has not directed another motion picture since this one came out in 2008, and not much at all is known about him as he was hesitant to do interviews when it came out. Perhaps he wanted to keep the mystique of the film alive, who knows, but it’s a shame he hasn’t done anything else as this is one of the most bittersweet and sad mockumentaries I’ve ever seen. There is a lingering sadness to this one that haunts for days – which is part of what’s happening to the Palmers in the film. The extent to which we, as the audience, empathize with this family is intense, at least for those who loved the film. There are those who go into it hearing such fantastic things that they come away disappointed because the horror here is mostly of the human variety – the way the family deals with grief, and the way you can live your whole life with someone and not really know them at all. It’s got its share of creepy moments, and one humdinger of a jump scare, but this is a quiet film that deals with the silence and unanswered questions the living are left with when a loved one dies, especially one as young as Alice.

The actors are very convincing in their roles; I’ve heard it said that their acting is ‘wooden,’ but to me, it’s quite a genuine representation of how a family would act in front of a camera while discussing the death of a loved one. What some people think is wooden acting is, in my humble opinion, exactly the way a family like this would present themselves on camera; they’re keeping it together for the cameras, trying to get Alice’s story out into the world, and they’re going to do their best to stay collected and calm lest the whole thing goes off the rails. The mother and father both come across as smart, stoic, and damaged, but determined, in the end, to move on. The brother does the same, but his way of processing his sister’s death is, well, a bit problematic.


Mom, Alice, and Grandma Palmer

We first get the backstory of what happened to Alice Palmer. News footage tells the tale of the young girl who drowned in a nearby lake (but NOT Lake Mungo; that’s for later) and was found by a rescue team several hours later. The family had been on a day trip to the dam when Matthew decided to return to shore, leaving Alice swimming in the water alone. He reaches the shore, and Alice is nowhere to be seen. Police are called, and when her body is found Dad is called down to identify the body. Mom wasn’t up to seeing her daughter that way, and as Dad admits in his interview, that may have been a mistake.

Alice’s room as it was the night she died

Soon after her death, the family begins to hear strange sounds around the house. A contractor working at the dam where Alice drowned finds a figure in the shadows of one of his photos that looked mysteriously like Alice. Matthew sets up cameras around the house to try and capture what might be going on, and in several shots we see apparitions of Alice, sometimes walking past the camera, and other times hiding in corners of rooms. Things seem to be going down the same path as so many horror movies and mockumentaries that came before, but then – a twist.

A ghostly image of Alice Matthew captures on camera

Another couple discovers footage they took at the dam on the same day as the contractor, and once they realize the coincidence, they go back through their videos of the day to see if they too captured Alice’s likeness on film. And it turns out they did capture a figure in the background, just like the contractor, except from their angle, it’s clear that the figure is not Alice at all – it’s Matthew wearing her jacket.

Matty has some ‘splainin’ to do

It turns out that his mom’s growing conviction and obsession with the idea that the body Russell identified that night was not Alice, and that Alice might still be alive, prompts Matthew to run with the idea in order to convince his father to exhume the body and put his mother’s obsession to rest. At least, that’s why he says he did it. It’s really not clear that Matthew himself really understands what compelled him to pull off such a macabre scam, but it does come across that he did so without malice and was perhaps acting out some sort of desire on his part for his sister to still be alive. For whatever reason he did it, his stunt works – Russell starts to doubt that he did actually see the body of his daughter that night, and he agrees to allow the body to be exhumed and DNA tested. This is where you might expect another twist, but there is none – the body is Alice’s, after all. She’s really, truly gone.

The movie does something clever here; by having Matthew explain to the documentary crew exactly how he pulled off getting those ghostly apparitions of his sister on film, the director is essentially allowing the character to reveal his own secrets. Using old videos of Alice and strategically placing the television playing the footage opposite a mirror or other reflective surface, Matthew has made it appear that Alice’s ghost is haunting the house. It’s a pretty neat trick, and it has the audience looking out for further tricks as the story moves forward. But things aren’t that simple here. The story is just getting started.

Lake Mungo, looks creepy as hell to me

A psychic has gotten involved by this time; he runs a local radio show where people call in and ask him to help with all sorts of paranormal issues and with connecting to dead relatives and the like. June feels strangely comforted by his presence over the airwaves and asks him to come help them out. He even holds a seance wherein they try to contact Alice, but nothing happens.

As we delve into Alice’s history, it’s clear things were not quite right between her and her mother. It’s handed out in little bits and scraps, but it seems clear that June had become rather distant towards Alice as she grew into her teenage years; as if there was some deeper level of love June was unwilling to invest in her. It’s revealed that this coldness, for lack of a better word, runs deep on Mom’s side of the family, as she experienced the same distance from her own mother as a child. Alice and June, in short, were just not getting along at the time of her death, and it’s clear Mom carries the guilt of that in her heart. At one point she tells the camera that she hopes Alice knew she loved her, which is telling. She’s not at all sure Alice did know.

And in spite of Matthew’s revelation about his deception, the strange noises around the house don’t stop. June decides to go back over the old tapes he produced, wondering if she can see anything else in them that might explain whatever is going on, and sure enough she finds something in one of the videos – there’s a figure hiding out in Alice’s bedroom, all crouched down in a corner. Even weirder, Mom tells us that this figure is – their neighbor?

Meet the neighbors – on second thought, don’t

June rightly decides that if the neighbor – Brett Toohey was his name – is skulking around Alice’s room at night, there’s got to be a reason and it’s probably not a good one. Some snooping reveals the truth about Brett’s late-night visit (or visits, who knows how many times the guy snuck in there). He was looking for a tape that June found in Alice’s belongings. How does June know he was looking for this tape? Because the tape reveals that Alice had become involved in some sort of sexual “relationship” with Mr. Toohey and his wife. It’s not clear when this situation developed or how long it had gone on – Alice had babysat the creepy Toohey’s children for years – and it’s also not clear why Alice has this tape in her possession. Now, Alice can’t be more than 16 or 17 at the time of her death, which makes this nothing like an actual sexual relationship at all and much more of sexual abuse of a minor, but the movie doesn’t dwell on that, which isn’t the greatest choice in my opinion. But I hate to admit that at the same time, this revelation about Alice is oddly effective; the flat-out oddness of the revelation, and the magnitude of its effect on Alice, serve well to deepen the sadness and detachment she had from her family when she was alive. Who knows how she felt about this situation with her neighbors, but we can project plenty onto it – it’s deeply wrong, and probably scarring for Alice emotionally, and it probably caused her to feel isolated not just from her family but from everyone around her.

Dr. Slatter, the psychic

And it’s not just the tape June discovers. In Alice’s planner, June finds a business card taped to one of the pages – and it’s the same psychic the family has been consulting with recently. Why does Alice have his business card in her calendar? Because as it turns out, Alice had been going to see him for readings or sessions or whatever he calls them in the weeks before her death. Dr. Slatter claims he didn’t tell the family he knew Alice due to confidentiality issues, but June ain’t buying it, which seems reasonable. Based on his situation he never should have agreed to meet with the Palmers once he realized who their daughter was, but he did it anyway, and he doesn’t have a really great explanation as to why. He is quickly booted out of the picture, but the whole situation adds yet another layer to Alice’s secret life. Why was she going to see him anyway?

Searching for Alice’s body

June finds something else in Alice’s planner that triggers a memory; Alice had several days marked off for a trip to Lake Mungo with high school friends at the start of summer. June recalls that Alice wasn’t the same after taking that trip. A few of Alice’s friends are interviewed who reveal that they, too, noticed a change in Alice after that, and that she actually seemed upset about something while still on the trip. Several of Alice’s friends share cell phone footage they took on the night in question, when something clearly upset Alice, and through the dark and shaky video June discovers something – in the background of one shot, Alice can be seen by a small copse of trees, burying something in the ground. Off they go to Lake Mungo.

It’s easy enough for them to find the spot where Alice did her digging, and soon enough they uncover Alice’s cell phone – she’d told June when she got back from the trip that she lost it – along with some jewelry that was special to her. There’s footage on the phone, so they fire that bad boy up and get to viewing.

Alice, looking less than happy to be there

It’s shaky footage of Lake Mungo as Alice walks along, alone in the dark. In the very far distance, her camera spies movement. Then a small speck. The speck gets bigger and it’s clear that it’s a figure. It walks slowly but directly towards Alice. The closer it gets into view, it becomes clear that it’s a person. A female. And slowly it dawns on us – as it must have dawned on Alice – that this figure, this person, is her. The figure moves closer, and we recognize the odd distortion of her face matches the disfigured face of her corpse when it was lifted from the water. This is Alice seeing herself dead, drowned – the face moves right into the camera, and seems to float there for some time. Then it shrieks like a damn banshee and lunges at her. The video cuts out. And that, my friends, is the jump scare to end all jump scares. The director has been slowly tightening the tension for almost an hour at this point, and we’re all ready to spring right out of our seats from being wound so tight. It’s a horrific jolt, being so out of place in such an otherwise quiet film, and it’s wildly effective.


So this is why Alice started seeing Dr. Slatter, and this is why she was so affected by the Lake Mungo trip. She saw her own death coming for her. We see footage of Alice in one of her sessions with the psychic, and she describes to him her feelings of isolation and loneliness. She describes a dream in which she walks into her parents’ bedroom at night, soaking wet, and stands at the foot of their bed, crying and begging them to wake up. But they don’t respond. They don’t hear her. They can’t help her. And Alice realizes she is completely alone. It’s – pretty sad, actually. It’s a terrible realization for someone to have at her age, and it’s a terrible way to feel at any age. Whether or not we can believe she actually saw her own death that night, we can sympathize with her pain, and it makes her premature death all the sadder, that she had to die while carrying the burden of so much fear and loneliness.

This seems to be the missing piece in the puzzle for the family. After making this discovery, as June describes it, they actually start to move on. They don’t make any actual decisions to move on, it just sort of happens, as if they are finally able to put Alice’s memory to rest. June even visits Dr. Slatter one last time, to get some closure on the whole experience before they move out of the house where so much tragedy has happened, and try to put themselves back together again. At this point, the film cuts between a session Alice had with Slatter before she died and the session June is currently having with him. June describes walking into the now-empty house, and moving towards Alice’s room. Alice describes being in the house alone, and hearing her mother coming towards her. June sees herself entering Alice’s room and looking for her everywhere – but she can’t feel her in the house anymore. “She’s gone,” she tells Slatter, and she appears to be at peace. In Alice’s session, she describes her mother not being able to see her, even though she is in the room, and then her mother turns and walks away without saying a word. “She’s gone,” Alice says, and from her perspective, it has a completely different tone.

Matthew’s backyard photo, with the image of Alice in front of the bushes

The film moves from this scene into a replay of photos and filmed moments the crew has shown before, but this time our eyes are drawn to what we missed before – even in Matthew’s faked images, there’s a presence we’d never noticed in every single one.

The same picture, with another Alice sitting on a bench off to the right of the frame
That’s definitely NOT Matthew in Alice’s jacket
And that’s not Matthew off to the left either
Can you see her? It’s tough to make out, but she’s standing behind the cabinets

Faked apparitions or not, it appears Alice has been in the house with them since her death. And based on her session with Dr. Slatter it seems Alice was having experiences of her life after death before she died. And while the family has found the closure they were seeking, selling the house and moving elsewhere to start over, it’s not so clear that Alice has gotten the closure she needs to move on. Looking back at that first photo we saw of the family, taken on the day of their move out of the house, we can see Alice staring out at them from the window behind them.

Check again

So what does this mean for Alice? Is she trapped in the house now, doomed to haunt it for all eternity? Or does her staying behind mean she’s releasing the family and letting them go? Did she guide June to discover her secrets for some reason? Or is she simply trapped in the house, watching the family carry on without ever being able to reach them? Does she know she is dead, or is she still stuck in the house, thinking she’s alive and no one’s listening to her? There aren’t any answers to these questions, which seems fitting really. It’s like June says at one point: “Death takes everything eventually. It’s the meanest, dumbest machine there is, and it just keeps coming and it doesn’t care.” 

The movie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s slow, and quiet, and definitely not your typical horror film. But what it definitely IS, is haunting. It’s one of the most effective portraits of being haunted by grief I’ve ever watched, really, because of how subtle and confusing it is. And the way the filmmaker managed to create a haunting that torments the dead as much as it does the living adds to the grief.

We as the audience are left feeling more like Alice at the end of it than the rest of the family. We’re stuck in that house with her, watching them leave us behind, and we don’t at all know what that means for us, and where, if anywhere, we will go. And that, my friends, is terribly, tragically sad. And scary as hell.

2 thoughts on “Found Footage Fave: Lake Mungo (SPOILERS!)

  1. Wow, this was a really great analysis of “Lake Mungo”! I agree that it’s a haunting film that is more about grief and human trauma than supernatural horror. My question is: do you think Alice’s continued presence in the house after her death is a sign of closure or a continuation of her haunting? The ambiguity of the film’s ending left me with a lot of questions.

    mr. w

    • You know, I just don’t know – and every time I try to make a definitive conclusion about it, I get steered towards another rabbit hole, and again have to realize I have no idea. I will say that the overall tone of the movie and just the image of Alice still inside the house all the family is outside and leaving does Not lend itself to a positive interpretation. It just Isn’t a very positive image to be left with, so I don’t think that bodes well for Alice.

      Thanks for stopping by!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s