When sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns when out swimming, her family is plunged into grief. Her bloated body is found a week later and a verdict of accidental death is announced. Queue all kinds of paranormal and supernatural happenings. Alice is seen in her old bedroom mirror. She appears in a photograph of the family’s back garden taken by her brother. She appears in a video at the site of her drowning taken by a random couple. And so on, and so forth. Unnerved, the Palmers seek the help of a psychic, Ray Kemeny, and they soon discover that young Alice led something of a double life. A series of clues lead them to the titular Lake Mungo, where her secret past emerges.
In many ways, Lake Mungo is your typical horror film. The scares are the usual clichéd “Oh my God! I thought she was dead!” moments. What makes it stand out in the genre is its execution. The scares might be typical, the narrative is anything but. While most horror films follow the usual story-telling approach of cinema (such as The Exorcist) or, in recent years, the found footage technique (a la The Blair Witch Project), Lake Mungo is filmed like a documentary. It really helps that the cast is completely unknown and that the film is set in a rural part of Australia. It feels like it could be real. And unlike Paranormal Activity, it does not make the mistake of trying to over-explain itself and ruin this chilling illusion. The screenplay is strong. Looking back and without spoiling anything, there are at least three major shockers before the final coup de grace at Lake Mungo itself. On paper, this seems like a couple of twists too many which could spoil the impact of the final big reveal; however, the pacing is fantastic and each scare will leave you a little closer to needing a change of pants.
That being said, it is not without flaws. As mentioned earlier, the scares, while well-timed and well-executed, are typical. Nothing against the filmmakers, but a ghostly reflection in the mirror has been done to death (no pun intended). The climax is the scare that really pushes the limits; totally unexpected, it is this moment that pushes Lake Mungo from mediocre and enjoyable to genuinely terrifying. Apart from that, the acting is slightly wooden. Granted, you do not need BAFTA-winning performances in a mockumentary, but there are a few moments when the sullenness of the supporting roles manages to completely break the tension. At the end of the day, however, these minor gripes do not affect the overall impact of this gripping story. It is definitely one that I, as a staunch horror wimp, would recommend you watch.