Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: Lake Mungo

 The Blair Witch Project gave me a lot of hope. It was made with such scant means that it and its immediate descendants were called credit card films. But it survived its own production famine and its own publicity campaign (sips, “ah yes, vintage viral”) to take the screen as an effective horror tale. Everything on screen serves a simple premise and however rambling and wayward it might seem it remains one of the most steadily purposed genre movies of the past few decades. As such it provided a clear blueprint for the future of cinema.

Instead, we got a number of copies of decreasing efficacy which took their lessons from the surface before sinking into dear-achieved obscurity. Unsteadicam and video stock only intensifies something that’s intense to begin with. Limited point of view shooting can heighten surprises or shocks but it was a trope rather than a substantial component of the BWP. The BWP works because it concentrates on three students getting scared in the bush. They get lost, angry, frustrated, distrustful of each other, and they are trapped in a landscape of low visibility which night time turns into a mouth of Hell. That’s a concept, a real concept. Now you can git yer cheap ‘n’ cheerful Sony out, scout, flout and shake it all about but if you don’t do your groundwork you’re just going to make people seasick or worse bored and seasick.

Lake Mungo is a recent Australian film which got a teensy window on screen (in Melbourne maybe a week on screen at the George). A girl drowns and haunts her family … maybe. If this were hanging on the wall I’d classify it as mixed media. The core of the film is a series of talking head interviews reminiscent of 4 Corners or Australian Story. Woven around and through are elements dressed up as police video, news footage, phone camera, home video, still photos, “current” location shooting with the various participants and some of the most gorgeous landscape photography you are likely to see in a fiction film (really, have a look at some of Bill Henson’s landscape work and imagine it moving .. just a little).

The blend is masterful. At no time is there any doubt that what you are seeing on the screen and hearing through the speakers is in tireless service to the central theme of grief and its effects. Add to this some family politics, issues of youth, the ethics of supernaturalists and some very dark matter in the home and neighbourhood and you have a pretty full plate that, due to some real skill, won’t make you bloated and drowsy.

I showed this to some friends recently and picked up more detail. Also, this time around some of the quirkiness that had annoyed me initially appeared unobtrusive. One subplot still bugs me though and its removal would strengthen the film’s core (no spoilers, sorry, see it and see if you agree). That said, it does carry the film’s undercurrent of despair efficiently. Again, I was less bothered by it the second time.

One detail open to those who listen to commentaries: at one point the director is talking about a particular shot and suggests to the viewer to use the zoom on the remote control to see something that “no one even knew was there when we shot it”. It’s a step too far and degrades the full value of the commentary. But it’s still fun. And it’s fun where the fun should be in such a film: off screen, away from the saddening content of the feature.

The surface of Lake Mungo is still and shiny, clear enough to look into its depth and secrets. The Blair Witch Project’s surface is all mud spatters and focus on the fly, a more immediately visceral experience. But both work for the same reason: a commitment to the core; they take you to the point and keep you there.

Lake Mungo adds a quality I love in a horror film, one usually overlooked but evident in every title I’d advance as an exemplar: sadness. It’s almost a character in itself, gaining form and substance with the passing minutes until it is the colour, sound and shape in front you and around you. See also, Dark Water (the real one by Hideo Nakata), The Exorcist (yes, really), Night of the Living Dead, and The Haunting (60s original).

If you like your ghost stories simple but substantial then chuck a few bucks for the rental of this 'un. Now!

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