the destroyer > reviews > Lewis DeJong on 'LAKE MUNGO'
BENEATH THE SURFACE OF LAKE MUNGO
There is a short Kids in the Hall sketch where a man writes a book, a thriller called Boo! The entirety of Boo! is one page that says “Boo!” The book rises to the top of the bestseller list, putting pressure on him to write a follow-up, which he titles Hey, There’s A Spider On Your Back! Again, the book is those words on one page. The sketch is funny to me because the readers display their fright in silly ways and it’s always funny to see Dave Foley in a wig. But I always imagine there are horror detractors who find a lot of truth in the sketch. I imagine they think the horror genre is easy to make and easier to see through, that horror movies are 90-minute long dramatizations of Halloween decorations with preposterous dialogue and a glut of sex. Basically, I imagine people don’t like horror movies because they think they’re bad.
They’re wrong. Sure, some horror movies are bad—I’m looking at you Evil Bong II—but the ratio of crummy ones to good ones is probably the same as in comedy or romance. The notion that horror movies are essentially lesser films only seems true because the borders of the genre are so mutable. Imagine there’s a movie with some standard horror trappings: a serial killer on the loose, an evil mastermind helping out and plotting his own bad deeds, and an obvious final girl as its main character. This sounds like boilerplate horror movie fare, right? That description also fits the 1991 Academy Award winner Silence of the Lambs. So is that horror movie? Probably not in most people’s eyes—nor in the eyes of places like Wikipedia and Imdb. And the explanation that they would probably give (and the one I have heard other people give to this question) leads with the claim that Silence of the Lambs is just too good to be classified as a horror movie. Should quality preclude a movie from being horror? Should quality factor into genre at all?
No. Because for every genre-saturating turd that pits hot teenagers against a masked lunatic, there’s another movie out there that understands new ways to handle old conventions. A recent movie that epitomizes the unique horror movie spirit—and one that won’t be dignified by critics—is a New Zealand film called Lake Mungo. And though I could have focused on a campy remake, trendy homage, or splatter comedy, Lake Mungo successes align with the misunderstood strengths of the horror genre as a whole.
Rather than present a fictional story, Lake Mungo employs a fake documentary structure. The bulk of the movie’s focus is a family reeling from the death of their daughter when they start to notice strange occurrences in the house. The documentary presents family interviews, pictures, home movies made by the dead girl’s brother, and other ephemera that helps build a mysterious composite of a character who is dead by the time the movie starts. In horror, these techniques often get called gimmicks, but they speak to the horror movie’s constant pursuit of different ways of to scare a viewer. (Take, for instance, the 1960’s movie Peeping Tom, which was the first movie to take the point of view of a killer—a technique that outraged viewers and has been a foundation of the slasher subgenre since. Later, in the mid-90s, the found-footage genre emerged as a go-to for the gritty and cash-poor horror filmmaker when The Blair Witch Project became a stunning success.)
More than just being novel approaches, these reconstructions often serve the different stories being told. The fake documentary style of Lake Mungo works because the energy in the story doesn’t come from witnessing the girl’s death or even glimpsing her ghost in real time. The energy is in the attempt to make sense of events that have already happened. The camera follows the guilt-ridden mother and the deflecting father who calmly—without the histrionics of poor acting—wonder what this could mean for their lives. They have no answers and the documentary style has no interest in providing one, only recording the chase.
A more obvious strength of Lake Mungo is that it’s scary. This notion gets a little lost as viewers—myself included—become inundated and desensitized by recycled images. But to be genuinely scary is sometimes all a movie needs. There are, of course, different types of scary and being scared, perhaps most easily understood by their duration. First, there are the more and more famous jump scares that populate newer movies and serve as staples of the horror movie trailer. (Think Boo!) These scares are a little cheap, and that’s why they’re parodied so much. Then there are what I’d call the traditional medium scares, which are obviously longer than jump scares. These take the form of minutes-long scenes where a character comes to face the true horror at hand. Think the opening swimming scene in Jaws, the middle reveal scenes in The Sixth Sense, and the end of The Ring. These scenes amplify the level of danger or twist the facts; they force the character, and the viewer, to reconsider their own safety.
But there’s a third kind of scare, which maybe isn’t a “scare’ at all but a movie-length dread. Doom. The sense of foreboding. Atmospheric disquietude. It functions like ambient noise, inseparable from the experience of the film but hard to point at. Certain masterful horror movies—Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, Alien, and even something like Seven—er Se7en—can cycle through all these scares seemingly at the same time.
Lake Mungo seems set on the slowest and most pervasive one, revealing and recanting possibilities on the legitimacy of the girl’s ghost only to finally come forward with a surprising answer. What’s more is that the answer is attached almost to a single image that the viewer sees and forgets early on. But when the movie returns to that image, it has a new context and has become unsettling, in part because of the patience the narrative has shown, rising and falling with false starts, minor hints, and the central build of emotion.
The last characteristic that Lake Mungo embodies—and this is related to being scary—is the way it obscures a hidden themes with horror conventions. The movie claims to be about ghosts, and their presence burns through every scene. But ghosts serve only as a metaphor for the family’s grief. As the movie reconciles the possibility and meaning of the paranormal, the family struggles to make sense of the girl’s absence. The movie would never be so matter-of-fact about that purpose though, for fear of verging on drama. I appreciate that misdirection. If there’s one great horror-movie trademark, it’s creating distance between the monster on the screen and the fear beneath it.
Another way to unpack this: Imagine that a great fear of mine is childbirth. The horror movie—Rosemary’s Baby—will show me a pregnancy scenario where I am drugged by my hapless husband and goofy neighbors, raped by the devil, then lied to about my child, only to find out that I love my demon spawn anyway. This is scary, but it’s not hitting on the real-world fears of the first-time mother. Will my baby be healthy? Will I be healthy? Will I be a good parent? Will I be able to live with myself if I screw up this child? These are the questions that scare me, and although they are alluded to in the movie, they’ve become background noise to the devil and his worshippers.
This is what horror does: Distracts from a real-world fear by cloaking it in something fantastic. It’s not complete escapism; it’s more like transformation to help the viewer understand. Likewise, Lake Mungo distracts the viewer from its purpose: to show that people, family even, don’t know each other with the depth they assume. Sad and desperate facts come out about the girl in the movie. The family struggles with this information; they want to understand the truth about their girl. That is why they invest so heavily in the possibility of her ghost haunting them: Because then they can find out what they didn’t know. It’s simple. They want a little more time with her. They miss her. And although longing is rarely the feeling people dredge up when a door creaks or curtain moves, that’s what Lake Mungo unveils as a reality for the family.
The movie is emblematic of the best kind of horror. It takes itself seriously. It takes its subject matter seriously. Director and writer Joel Anderson has the patience to build the scare, has the thought behind it to make it profound, and the belief in horror to let it remain a non-ironic ghost story. The opposite would be easy to do. Titles like Cabin in the Woods and even Shaun of the Dead have riffed on horror while remaining firmly tongue in cheek. They’re entertaining movies and represent certain ideas well, but they also adhere to the notion that horror is somehow not a viable path unless altered into something else. My guess is that more and more horror will move toward the irony. But Lake Mungo reminds me of another possibility: One where horror movies become so good, so thoughtful, so everything that viewers won’t need anything more than to be reminded that the world is a scary place.