Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Poll a group of serious horror geeks about their favorite “underrated” horror films or ghost stories, and it’s almost a certainty that someone will eventually get around to offering up Lake Mungo. This is a film that has developed a certain reputation in horror circles over the years since its very low-profile release in 2008, to the point that there’s occasionally a sort of blowback against its inclusion in so many “underrated” lists. It’s become a divisive film in the process, but it functions well as a litmus test for the tastes of the viewer: Someone who is deeply affected by Lake Mungo is likely to be a film fan with no shortage of patience, and no expectation of being buffeted by traditional frights every few minutes. This is a story that unravels itself slowly and insidiously, as it steadily lodges itself under your skin.
The film is shot in the style of a faux documentary, but by no means a professional one—rather, the majority of the footage is home video being shot within the home of a family in mourning. Months earlier, the teenage daughter of the family, Alice, drowned in a lake under mysterious circumstances in an event witnessed by her family. Now, they find themselves still trying to process the impossible grief of her passing, while questioning whether some aspect of her spirit is still attempting to communicate with them.
This is about where a traditional Hollywood ghost story would start flinging apparitions about, but Lake Mungo uses that setup to instead delve into far more Lynchian questions of identity and who we are in private vs. who we are in public. Quickly, the question of whether the family’s home is being traditionally “haunted” is discarded, and Alice’s mother begins a more disturbing investigation into who her daughter truly was when alive. Why did Alice seem so certain of her own impending doom, and why didn’t she take her fears to them? What was the true nature of the weight that was bearing down on her shoulders, and how much guilt rests with the people in her life who failed to prevent her death? If ever there’s been a film that qualified for the title of “horror drama,” it’s this one—mumblegore without the gore, if you will.
As Alice’s mother continues to dig, Lake Mungo imperceptibly begins to ramp up its tension, but it does so on an almost subconscious level that is more observable on a second watch than it is the first time through. The audience begins to fear what’s around every corner without even understanding why exactly it is they’re afraid, and the droning soundtrack lures one into a hypnotic trance as it places you under its spell. Gritty, lo-fi and never particularly attractive to look at, there remains something about these images that worms its way into your memory. Perhaps it’s the sheer fidelity with which the film accurately reflects the look of home video, or the truly naturalistic dialogue, which seems almost entirely unscripted. You feel as if you’re peering into a family’s intensely private affairs through an open window, in a way that is deeply disrespectful, observing personal pain that is better left alone.
Lake Mungo is not a film with mass appeal to multiplex horror audiences—that much will be clear within the first few minutes of viewing it. But for those who find themselves inexorably drawn into its slow-burning drama, it captivates with sheer honesty and raw emotion, all the way to a conclusion that draws one almost against your will to the edge of your seat. It’s a shame that we’ve never seen a sophomore feature follow-up from director Joel Anderson, who dropped almost entirely off the grid until popping up as a script supervisor in Netflix’s Clickbait miniseries earlier this year. For whatever reason, Lake Mungo’s creator has seemed to shy away from claiming the notoriety that the film has steadily accrued, but perhaps one day he’ll return with another equally beautiful meditation on how loss stains the human spirit.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.