Lake Mungo is a genuinely underrated film – a masterpiece of Australian Gothic and a masterpiece of digital horror that predated Paranormal Activity by a year, while presaging the distinct texture of contemporary true crime series as well. It’s shot as a documentary, and revolves around a young woman, Alice Palmer, played by Talia Zucker, who drowns while swimming in her home town of Ararat, in rural Victoria. Gradually, Talia’s family suspect that she is haunting their house and community, and attempt to capture her presence in various ways. Throughout the film, director Joel Anderson beautifully evokes the uncanny textures of small town Australian life, pairing laconic Aussie accents with eerie supernatural happenings. At one point, some characters are forced to drive a car back into town in reverse; at another point, a local psychic explains that he developed a pseudonym because nobody would take a spiritual medium named “Ray” seriously. Touches like these draw out and defamiliarise the routines of rural Australia, paving the way for a vision that is genuinely, literally, unhomely.
With the events of the film taking place between 2006 and 2007, Lake Mungo also unfolds on the cusp of a fully digital era, on the very threshold of omniscient smartphone technology. Anderson initially evokes this period through a sustained analog gothic that begins with cluttering the narrative and mise-en-scene with almost or already antiquated technology. June Palmer, Alice’s mother, played by Rosie Traynor, works in the local library, and is more attuned to books and microfiche than digital equipment. When we first meet Ray, the psychic, played by Steve Jodrell, he’s speaking into the glitch and hiss of his radio, and we soon learn that he keeps a meticulous VHS library of his consultation sessions. Similarly, Mathew Palmer, Alice’s brother, played by Martin Sharpe, works as a film projector in a local movie house, and becomes obsessed with analog photography around the same time that his sister drowns. Mathew is fixated on documentation generally, taking a photograph of the backyard everyday for several months after losing Alice – images that recall Anderson’s own establishing shots.
Caught between these analog technologies and Alice’s more ghostly presence, the camera of Lake Mungo is partially haunted, or in the process of being haunted. The corporeality of the analog image is giving way, here, to the ethereality of the digital image, creating a series of increasingly porous spaces, and attitudes to spaces. Early on, June makes the somewhat startling admission that, following Alice’s death, she would regularly wander into other people’s houses at night, just to feel the presence of another family. Alice also turns out to have moved porously from family to family, since it emerges that she was involved in a menage a trois with the evocatively named Tooheys, who lived next door. Both June and Alice are also asked, by Ray, to imagine their houses, and imagine each other in their houses, which further breaks down the distinction between real and virtual, embodied and ethereal, spaces.
However, all these innovations are merely the preparation for the central gesture of Lake Mungo – performing an archaeology of the image in order to differentiate the digital and the analog. In practice, this means poring through images and footage where Alice seems to appear, after her death, and excluding all the explanations for her presence in the frame. Each time we return to these images, there are more blind spots, more people in the frame, and more vantage points, but these can usually be attributed to more analog devices, many of which also turn up in the images themselves. Anderson, and Alice’s family, patiently and eerily sift through all these people and devices, excluding them in an effort to arrive at the digital uncanny; namely, images that emerge from the act of filming itself. They’re trying to get to those parts of that image that don’t correlate with what is in front of the camera, but instead stem from the camera, to intuit a digital future embedded in the last residues of the present.
In practice, this means that much of the film plays as a process of elimination, in which characters exclude physical phenomena in images until we truly arrive at the digital. The first of these images is one of the photographs that Mathew took of the backyard. At first, it seems that Alice is standing, ghostly, in a corner, beneath a tree. However, Mathew soon confesses that he manipulated the image to provide some closure for his mother. Next, footage emerges from a local lake, which appears to depict Alice standing amidst the trees. However, we soon learn that there were several people filming the lake this day and that they all basically mistook each other for apparitions. Triangulating their footage, everything that seems to have been Alice actually turns out to be benign, although there’s something uncanny, in and of itself, about this apparently empty and natural space turning out to be so cluttered with analog devices, none of which are evident from any single sequence of footage.
However, the most extravagant image archaeology occurs in the Palmer’s house. When Mathew sets up three cameras, and leaves them running for twenty-four hours, it initially seems like a ghost of Alice has appeared. Soon enough, though, Mathew reveals that he also fabricated this image, using an old home video of Alice, and reflecting it off mirrors and other surfaces to create the ghostly apparition on the video. Upon reviewing the footage, and grudgingly admiring Mathew’s verisimilitude, June discovers another figure in the frame. Yet this is also no ghost. Instead, it turns out to be be Brett Toohey, the Palmer’s neighbour, who also entered the house at this very moment to retrieve a video cassette from Alice’s safe. Once again, an apparent ghost turns out to simply conceal another physical body, and piece of analog technology, within the mise-en-scene. This gives way to a whole suite of technologies, since from here the Palmers learn that Alice had also consulted Ray, the psychic before she died, who has a whole bank of VHS tapes of her that he never disclosed to them.
With all digital emanations ostensibly explained away by analog technology, Alice’s story takes the family to Lake Mungo, a remote dry lake in New South Wales, and the endpoint of the film’s media archaeology. The family learn that Alice buried her mobile phone here shortly before she drown. Digging for it, and recovering it, they find that she recorded an eerie confession: “I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like it has happened to me – it’s on its way but it hasn’t arrived yet.” At the very moment at which Alice tries to insist of the primacy of the physical world by burying her phone beneath the sand, she intuits a digital future that is already present, as her father, Russell, played by David Pledger, comes to realise: “I believe she recorded the future coming to get her.” It’s as if Alice glimpses her own imminent remediation here, turning the film as a whole into a digital omen whose grief now migrates into something broader and stranger, an elegy for a vanishing analog lifeworld.
Upon returning from Lake Mungo, the family, and the film, no longer continue to pore over images and photographs, prescient that no amount of analog elimination can fully exclude a digital presence that is always already there. Accordingly, the film ends by taking us back to every image and piece of footage, and showing us that Alice was there all along – from the first photograph of the backyard, where she just happened to be in a different location from where Mathew fabricated her presence, to the footage of the local lake, where she was a ghostly witness to the three video cameras that triangulated each other without registering her presence. Even the most rigorous media archeology, it seems, is insufficient to segregate analog from digital, since the digital works by remediating the analog, and inhabiting it from within. And the film acknowledges that by setting these final images against the credit sequence, inviting and refusing closure in the very same instant – such a remarkable missive from a digital future that the acclaim it deserves was somewhat displaced in its own present.