Joel Anderson is a ghost – a director who is more of occult status than the cult. With no presence online and little to go by other than interviews during the release of his only feature film to date; you can’t help but feel it feeds even more into the meta approach of Lake Mungo (2008).

After the huge success of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005) and the revival of genre filmmaking in Australia, government funding had become more relaxed and open to investment. With so many systemic problems with the Australian film industry over the years it is easy to see how the birth of Ozploitation took hold; making investors all the more twitchy. With conservative Australian governments working hard with what they felt was a more positive image of their nation it is no surprise that certain material was deemed ‘culturally insignificant’. Prior to the release of McLean’s film, the Spierig brothers’ cult alien / zombie hybrid, Undead (2005) was a prime example of independent filmmaking. Hence Australia’s accessible fair of ballrooms, weddings and queens of the dessert (all brilliant, I might add), of which were either transnational co-productions or funded completely by UK or US production companies.

Indeed, Australia was beginning to put the ‘B’ back into the budget movie during the ’70s from Ted Kotcheff’s terrifying masterpiece Wake in Fright (1971) to Brian Trenchard-Smith’s throwaway efforts, Turkey Shoot (1982) and Dead End Drive-In (1986) but it is in Trenchard-Smith’s docudrama short film, Hospitals Don’t Burn Down! (1978) that the parallels to Anderson’s film becomes more apparrant with the award-winning short standing up to be one of the most disturbingly realistic and immersive experiences put to screen. Trust me, watch it via YouTube or Arrow Video’s release of Dead End Drive-In.

In order to paint a clearer and concise background of Lake Mungo, it would also be worth taking a brief dive into the found footage technique and sub-genre. With deep roots in the Italian mondo films of the 1960s, found footage and docudrama would live amongst the exploitation boom of the ‘70s and ‘80s; with fleeting glimpses of snuff, insanity and animal cruelty that made every attempt to hide behind some deeper, more profound message of social commentary. From Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) up to the birth of ‘New French Extremism’ with Man Bites Dog (1992) — from Belgium directors Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel — the use of documentary style techniques have lent a further level of authenticity to film in an attempt to make the experience even more immersive. 

However, it is the likes of The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) directed by Charles B. Pierce and The Last Broadcast (1998) from Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos that are often overshadowed by the majority of examples coveted by most of us who discuss found footage. Even the title of Anderson’s film feels like a nod to Pierce’s (dated) Boggy Creek — whether intentional or not — and is often cited as more of an influence on Sánchez and Myrick’s seminal work than Deodato’s questionable effort.

Funded through the ‘Indivision’ scheme, via the Australian Film Commission (Screen Australia) for just under 1,400,000 AUD (£700,000), Anderson intentionally designed the film to work as a documentary to allow for low profile acting and improvisation that would help cut out unnecessary rehearsal time. Along with the experimentation of different filming techniques and narrative, Lake Mungo’s characters are placed front and centre and drive the entire film. It is interesting to see, through the use of the documentary style, that the Palmer family hide their emotions; they bottle it up as most people would in that scenario and therefore the film doesn’t fall into sentimentality or melodrama that would have been a trapping of a more traditional approach.

To reveal too much of the plot would be a complete disservice to the film and would recommend that you go into this on your own, with the lights off… even perhaps skipping the following synopsis. It is, however, no spoiler to state that sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer is dead from the offset. Having drowned while swimming at a dam in Ararat, Australia on a family vacation, the mystery surrounding her life, death and afterlife unfolds as the Palmer family’s accounts of the tragedy reveal all manner of clues shaped by truth and half-truths. As her teenaged brother Mathew sets up video cameras around the house (believing his sister is still alive?) we begin to be drawn into what we believe is the ghost of Alice. To say any more than this would rob you of the experience, but suffice to say the twists and turns are enough to keep you completely riveted until the post credits and start the film again; where you will pay even closer attention to the photographs and footage on display.

The Palmers seem desperate for Alice to remain with them, dealing with the situation in their own way. Memory and grief is therefore crucial to the film’s narrative as we open with a portent of early 20th century photographs that highlight the strange (mockery?) of the living and the dead; relatives and loved ones who seem unaware of their presence. It is a montage that illustrates perfectly how the dead are often hidden within memory and, in the case of the Palmers, a presence we may see in the accompanying photograph that bookends the film.

As with a lot of films centred around hauntings — Jennifer Kent’s Babadook (2014) and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) being prime examples — Lake Mungo places the central theme of grief at its core and, although the film is a chilling account of the supernatural, it is an exploration of how the Palmer family deal with the death of Alice. Anderson attempts to deliver something cyclical; a girl who may be haunted by her own death or the possibility of something more ancient that could be intentionally left out of the narrative for further examination; a detail that has its roots in the real Australian location.

Located in New South Wales, Lake Mungo remains ‘dead’ and dried out, creating the perfect location for a mystery. This is a place that not only has a history of European settlers dating back to the 1880s but also archaeological discoveries of ‘Mungo Man and ‘Mungo Woman’ that could be as old as 40,000 years. Does Anderson touch upon this? Whether he does or not only adds further theory into what we may bring to the story ourselves. But whether this is something more subtle or not, the film’s story still has a sense of closure that is rare in most ghost stories.

The film explores Alice’s life and death while building an effective ‘mystery horror’ laced with a supreme sense of dread and legitimacy that is rarely seen within the genre. There are many different sides to Alice; as with most of us when we were teenagers, we experimented, made mistakes and held onto the things we wouldn’t dare share with anyone, let alone our own parents. Secrets hide within the muddy imagery providing enough twists to make the film a refreshing and less predictable watch than most of the found footage films during that decade and still holds up today.

In distancing the viewer further, the Australian location and characters also help separate the film from those films it is most commonly compared to. Although people will make obvious references to Paranormal Activity (2007), released the year before, Lake Mungo is a far more immersive experience that embraces the economy of found footage films — revitalised by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) — and manages to layer in all manner of documentation to build an effective mystery, first and foremost. In terms of what we associate with Ozploitation, there is one explicit moment that becomes a curveball in the plot and, to be honest, would have still worked without the scene.

Lake Mungo delivers on many levels with a chilling atmosphere that manages to utilise photography, Super 8, video, emergency calls along with cell phone and news footage to build a more than convincing mockumentary. This is heightened by excellent use of sound design and a superb score throughout as we squint in the darkness, constantly asking ourselves, ‘What is real? What is fabricated?’ What we think is lurking in the black noise becomes as disconcerting as what we eventually see. We buy the twists because they are a crucial part of the narrative and the character’s motivations and coping mechanisms; all of which builds on our own mistrust and fear.

The terms ‘underrated’ and ‘overlooked’ are often flounced around all too often within film communities but Lake Mungo absolutely should be seen by more people and discussed further. If there was ever a rerelease there is a documentary on ‘Looking for Anderson’ begging to be made; a filmmaker who has either consciously avoided making any other films or simply found something more fulfilling with his life. Lake Mungo may not be an influential piece of cinema but it is, without a doubt, one of the best ghost stories committed to screen that has remained as mysterious as its director.