The Big Picture

  • Lake Mungo is highly acclaimed as one of the greatest horror films of all time due to its unique design and precision in creating a disturbing experience.
  • Joel Anderson, the writer-director of Lake Mungo, has become an enigmatic figure in the genre, with little information available about his whereabouts and future projects.
  • Anderson’s involvement in recent projects, such as the Netflix series Clickbait and the found footage horror film Late Night with the Devil, provides hope for a possible follow-up to Lake Mungo and suggests a change in direction in his filmmaking career.

Lake Mungo has been steadily gaining a reputation as one of the greatest horror films of all time ever since its 2008 debut, and with good reason. While the elevator pitch might make it appear unremarkable – another found footage horror film where the bulk of the scares come from the camera slowly zooming in on still photographs – the genius of Lake Mungo lies in its design. Writer-director Joel Anderson does not orchestrate his debut as though seeking to generate endless reaction videos, but with a level of precision and clarity that only someone with the uttermost confidence in their vision could replicate. This is a film unafraid to take its time, trapping the viewer in a veneer of simplicity that gradually evolves into the most disturbing 90 minutes of your life. It takes an extraordinary talent to craft such a mesmerizing experience from such limited resources, but with Anderson doing so with apparent ease, it’s no wonder that fans have been eagerly anticipating his follow-up. Alas, it looks like they’ll be waiting a while.

Despite dropping a few hints about what his next films would be whilst promoting Lake Mungo, nothing has materialized. A glance through Anderson’s IMDb page reveals only a smattering of subsequent credits – most of which do not feel like the successor horror enthusiasts have been waiting for. His lack of an online presence and refusal to give interviews has seen him evolve (perhaps unintentionally) into one of the most enigmatic directors in the genre. More than a few online sleuths have sought to learn what happened to this promising young talent, but with even his former Lake Mungo colleagues refusing to elaborate on his whereabouts, there’s a chance we may never know. It’s a strange fate, but one that contributes to his debut’s popularity. As with other cult horror films like Begotten and Cannibal Holocaust, Lake Mungo feels like an artifact unearthed from a lost civilization – coated in intrigue, veiled in mystery. How fitting that its director should have followed a similar path.

What Is ‘Lake Mungo’ About?

The cast of Lake Mungo sitting on a couch
Image via After Dark Films

As with all the best horror films, Lake Mungo is less concerned with terrifying its viewers than it is with exploring the most primal of human emotions – in this case, the heartbreak that comes from losing someone you love. The film recalls the tragic tale of the Palmers (the most overt Twin Peaks reference in a story that wears that influence quite openly), a seemingly ordinary family from the city of Ararat, Australia, who suddenly find themselves gripped by the terrible vice of grief after the drowning of their youngest member, sixteen-year-old Alice (Talia Zucker). In the weeks that follow, ominous supernatural incidents begin occurring across their household, such as Alice’s mother, June (Rosie Traynor), dreaming that her deceased daughter is watching over her during the night. Haunted by the fear that his younger sister isn’t dead, the remaining child, Matthew (Martin Sharpe), installs a series of cameras throughout the property to settle the matter once and for all. To extrapolate further would be venturing too far into spoiler territory, but as should be expected from a film that uses David Lynch as its main source of inspiration, more than a few secrets are lurking behind the façade of the Palmer family.

Part of what makes Lake Mungo so engrossing is the unique way it is presented. Rather than trying to ape the accomplishments of other found footage films like The Blair Witch Project, Anderson chooses to frame his narrative as if it were a documentary. Anyone who has spent a weekend binging the latest true-crime sensation on Netflix will find Lake Mungo’s aesthetic immediately recognizable. The bulk of the runtime consists of the Palmer family giving interviews to an off-screen journalist (played by an uncredited Anderson, a move that provokes much conversation about the relationship between a creator and their creations). The clean camerawork and flat lighting of these sections make for an effective contrast to the grainy, lo-fi video where the more traditional scares take refuge. The naturalistic acting and improvised dialogue are the final touches of genius, bestowing the film an authenticity that other entries in the genre lack. Many a found footage film has strived to replicate reality so that an unsuspecting viewer could be tricked into believing it was the real thing. In the case of Lake Mungo, that illusion is achieved with a frightening degree of accuracy.

RELATED: Found Footage Horror Movies Don’t Deserve the Hate

Of course, it helps that Lake Mungo has spent the past 15 years strengthening its own ambiguousness. It’s hard to deny that The Blair Witch Project didn’t lose a few points on the intrigue monitor after knowledge of its once-fabled origins became universally known. However, with Lake Mungo continuing to thrive in a secluded bubble away from the mainstream, the same has not happened to Anderson’s masterpiece. Its unknown cast remains unknown, its photophobic director remains a man of mystery of whom very little is known… to a contemporary viewer who hasn’t spent an evening delving into decade-old interviews, Lake Mungo may as well have conjured itself into existence from nowhere. It’s a thought that oddly lines up with something Anderson expressed back in 2009 at the Brisbane International Film Festival: “We were thinking it’d be nice if we could make a film that was kind of a curiosity, but if you saw it years from now you wouldn’t know anything about where it came from.” How prophetic that quote now seems.

Joel Anderson Hasn’t Directed Anything Since ‘Lake Mungo’

Image from 'Lake Mungo' of a family standing in front of their house.
Image via Arclight Films.

Which brings us to the question of the day: just what on earth happened to Joel Anderson? It’s true that Lake Mungo didn’t come close to rivaling the international fame or monetary success of The Blair Witch Project – $248 million at the global box office compared to a meager A$29,850 at the Australian market, the only country where it got a proper theatrical release. But the reputation it has since enjoyed in horror communities (plus being sold to Paramount Vantage for a possible Hollywood remake) makes it hard to believe that Anderson wouldn’t have been able to produce some kind of follow-up. Anderson himself has spoken of his desire to create more ambitious films. In fact, the inspiration for Lake Mungo’s core philosophy – a microbudget test run that could be primarily shot on the weekends – only came about due to his inability to get the financial backing for a “more complex production,” hinting at loftier endeavors down the line. It’s common for artists to return to earlier passion projects once they’ve established a footing in their chosen art form, but if Anderson did do this, then it failed to culminate in a finished product.

This isn’t to say that Anderson has vanished from the industry entirely, it’s just that the few projects his name has been linked to have only raised further questions. The most egregious example is Gravity (with Paperclip), a palatable two-minute short from 2013 that imagines what Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller Gravity would have looked like had the notorious Clippy the Paperclip from Microsoft Office made an appearance. Anderson is listed as one of nine (!) writers on the film, and while this has proven head-scratching for fans of his previous work, deeper analysis suggests that it is a different Joel Anderson to the one who made Lake Mungo (IMDb not having the best track record when it comes to differentiating between separate people with the same name). Horror fans everywhere, breathe your sigh of relief.

Will We Ever See Another Movie From ‘Lake Mungo’s Director?

Lake Mungo Image
Image via Arclight Films

Thankfully, the remaining credits seem like the real deal. The first example comes via the Netflix miniseries Clickbait, a whodunit for the digital age that dominated the global television charts for a short period of late 2021 before disappearing into the depths of the streaming algorithm (a demise many Netflix original programs have suffered). Both IMDb and Paste magazine have listed Anderson as a script editor on the series, making it his first verified reappearance since the release of Lake Mungo 13 years prior. While it’s hard to call Clickbait a comeback due to his minor role in the show’s production, it’s nice to have confirmation that he’s still operating within the industry (and presumably still interested in the relationship between humans and our growing dependence on technology).

This brings us to the most exciting project of all, Late Night with the Devil – a found footage horror film that purports to be a lost episode of the fictitious talk show Night Owls with Jack Delroy in which the appearance of the sole survivor of a Satanic church’s mass suicide caused mayhem to erupt across the studio. The film has currently only played at festivals, but early buzz has been unanimously positive, with specific praise directed at David Dastmalchian’s leading role. Anderson (the real one) serves as executive producer, and while the dubious nature of that role makes it hard to determine his overall impact on the film (especially this far out from a wide release), all indications suggest that Late Night with the Devil is the successor Lake Mungo fans have been dreaming of. Here’s hoping the subgenre’s oversaturation won’t temper their enthusiasm.

Whatever the reason for Anderson’s hiatus, both Clickbait and Late Night with the Devil provide hope that it has reached its conclusion. While neither contains his long-awaited return to feature-length filmmaking – and it’s worth noting that there’s no evidence that that particular sabbatical is about to end anytime soon – Anderson’s involvement indicates a change in direction that makes a genuine follow-up to Lake Mungo an actual possibility. Still, it’s important not to read too thoroughly into these developments. Not every creative with a passion for storytelling also wants the stress that comes from directing – nor does every director who finds stardom with one underground film immediately have the pull to get their personal fascinations onto the silver screen. And all this is assuming that this is even what Anderson wants. Plenty of filmmakers have sustained healthy careers in behind-the-curtain roles after deciding that frontline directing wasn’t for them. Perhaps Anderson had a similar revelation?

Well, unless he’s suddenly going to change his attitude toward interviews, we’ll probably never know, but that’s not the worst thing. Most aspiring directors are lucky to get a single film off the ground, let alone one that reaches the mystifying legacy of Lake Mungo. As the years march forward and Anderson’s debut starts to look more and more like an exhumed ancient burial ground, there’s no doubt that its reputation as one of the great horror films of its era will continue to grow. Whether that will tempt Anderson to direct again is another matter, but at the same time, his unwillingness to do so is partly what makes it so intriguing. No one is obligated to make films if they don’t want to. You won’t find many people complaining if he does reconsider, but even if he doesn’t, his longevity is all but assured. Not a bad outcome for a debut.

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