Australia, the Beautiful, the Deadly: Lake Mungo (2008) and The Loved Ones (2009)

Though I’m no longer Australian, I had an Australian passport until I was about 18, and my mother, brother, and most of my maternal-side relatives live there. I’ve probably spent a total of six months in Australia, but I haven’t explored the country much and know embarrassingly little about its history or culture. However, my impressions of it are vivid and sharp-edged. I think of the country as a femme fatale: very very beautiful and very very dangerous.

The longest period of time I spent in Australia was during the summer of 1984. I can tell you the exact year without hesitation not because I bought a six-string and played it ’til my fingers bled but because it’s the summer I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That movie was a formative moment in my youth: during the bridge scene, Harrison Ford stirred my young loins in a way I had not yet felt.

Image from Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom

Harrison Ford was 42 at the time, which is pretty goddamn remarkable if you think about it. Not only did Ford look that good at 42, but he looked good in a way that didn’t make my 11-year-old self feel gross about finding a man her parents’ age attractive. What else was remarkable was that I felt desire without really understanding that it was desire that I felt, which I have to say was really nice: lust that was overwhelming but uncomplicated, naughty but innocent–when do we ever get to feel that in our adult lives anymore?

Harrison Ford will get a post all his own because he is turning 71 in two days and because he was so essential to my sexual development . . .

Wait, where was I? Right: Australia . . . beautiful, deadly.

1) Australia is filled with parrots. They just fly around like it’s no big whoop. Galahs–a sort of gray and pink cockatoo–are as common as pigeons; my aunt rescued two injured ones and kept them in an aviary in her backyard. I have seen trees full of green parakeets and was woken up once by a terrible screeching, which, when I went outside, I discovered was being made by a bough-full of cockatoos. One time, running around my grandmother’s yard during a storm, I saw what I swear was a blue-gold macaw perched on a branch, bobbing unconcerned in the wind. Since then, I’ve learned that macaws are not native to Australia, so I’m guessing it was some sort of rosella. Gee, how disappointing.

2) When we would walk down to the lake near my grandmother’s, we would sometimes see emu in the brush. I have hand-fed emu. They are pretty friendly, but it is impossible for me not to fear birds that are taller than I am.

3) My grandmother’s garden was filled with roses, some of which were light blue.

4) According to Australian Geographic, there are over 1,000 deadly plants in Australia, many of which look like lovely flowers. They also say that ten percent of plants in Australia make cyanide.

5) My grandmother lived next to a field filled with very tall grass. Once, I bounded into it, likely pretending (as I was wont to do at that age) that I was riding a horse. I’m sure I’ve since dramatized what happened next, but in my memory, adults of all kind suddenly burst out of the house, screaming at me to stop moving and to slowly step out of the field. (In my mind, it was like that scene in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex appears and Sam Neill tells Jeff Goldblum to “FREEZE!” but Jeff Goldblum just doesn’t listen.) I later realized that there were probably at least ten Very Poisonous Things (VPTs) living in the field .

6) Australia is home to the huntsman spider, the second largest in the world. Their leg span can reach up to one foot, their weight over a third of a pound. Despite their terrifying name, huntsman are not VPTs but are actually quite harmless; more than one source suggests that they make good pets (??). Because they feed on other VPTs, they are welcome in many Aussie homes. My aunt found a huntsman in one of the rooms of her house. She happily left him there and even named him Horace. I think she thought of him as a sort of bodyguard. I’ve never seen a huntsman (only the molt of one, which was plenty, thank you very much), but my brother saw one climb upon his mailbox once and said it looked like a giant, furry hand.

7) While funnel-web spiders are considerably smaller than huntsman, they are VPTs: their fangs are over a quarter-inch long and can apparently pierce fingernails and shoe leather. Okay, but you want to know the scariest thing about funnel-webs? They are totally aggressive and will REAR UP if provoked. (Incidentally, as you’ll find from the previous link, scientists also think their venom could be used to combat breast cancer.)

8) My grandmother had a colony of feral cats living on her property. When I played outside, I would, every once in a while, stumble upon a pack of sleeping kittens. They would spit and scatter, but it was amazing to come across them, like finding Easter eggs. My grandmother fed the colony daily, and when she did, literally thirty cats would appear, a tantalizing number of them kittens of every color imaginable.  Sometimes I would sneak up on the youngest while they were eating and pick them up. They tore my arms apart, but I never minded; it was worth it to feel their tiny, soft bodies if only for a moment. When my grandmother died, they sold the house, and, I learned afterwards, poisoned the entire colony of cats. I cried.

9) At an animal park, I once petted a reclining giant red kangaroo; moments later, it got up, revealing itself to be a good six inches taller than me at least, and proceeded to get in a vicious fist-fight with another red. This is common behavior.

10) Driving near my grandmother’s house years after she had passed, I once looked on the side of a hill and saw a herd of . . . something. Having lived in upstate New York for some time, I assumed (stupidly) they were deer grazing at dusk. Turns out it was a troop of wild kangaroos. (And, yes, they are called a troop.)

All of that rambling was simply a prelude to my discussion of Australian horror films, which I’ve recently discovered are a Thing. A Really Good Thing. Separately, each of these films are terrific; together, they embody for me the beauty and danger that is Australia, and each does so through the figure of a young girl, who is both innocent and menacing. Perhaps Australians realize that the greatest threats lie in the least likely of places. The films are like this stylistically as well: gorgeously made, profoundly unsettling.

Movie Poster for Lake Mungo
Movie Poster for Lake Mungo

I’ve plugged this movie before, but Lake Mungo (Joel Anderson, 2008) is one of the creepiest films I’ve ever seen. It’s a mockumentary about a teenage girl, Alice, who drowns. Soon, her ghost starts showing up. Or does it? Are those ghostly images fabricated? If not, what does Alice want? You have to watch the entire film to know, and you’ll change your mind a bunch of times in between. And who is Alice? She becomes more and more of a mystery, not simply the sweet sixteen-year old she first seemed. If you’re looking for big scares, giant beasties, or gore, this is not the film for you. But if atmospheric horror–the subtle grainy image, the barely visible shadow, the innuendo of something evil–keeps you up at night (I slept with the lights on for two nights after seeing Blair Witch), then watch Lake Mungo. Several scenes made me feel as though my hair was literally standing on end, I was that spooked.

Here is the trailer for the film. And I swear to God, if they remake this film in America, I will picket.

The Loved Ones Movie Poster
Movie Poster for The Loved Ones
The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2009) is equally satisfying fare, though of an entirely different flavor. This film’s about as disturbing as they come. I couldn’t tell you without watching again if it’s actually gory or if it is just suggestively gory (meaning that we know that icky things happen but don’t actually see them take place). It disturbed me profoundly, but I couldn’t look away and actually watched it twice in a row. The general story is about a girl who gets rejected when she asks a boy to the prom and then takes revenge. Only she’s really good at it. Like practiced. Anyway, if you like films that border more on the “torture porn” genre (think The Strangers [2008] or Vacancy [2007]), then you’ll probably like this one. Here’s the trailer.

3 thoughts on “Australia, the Beautiful, the Deadly: Lake Mungo (2008) and The Loved Ones (2009)

  1. Intrigued by Lake Mungo–I’ll have to see if I can get a copy.

    And glad to know I wasn’t the only person frightened out of my wits by Blair Witch. That came out when I was a kid and we all trooped into the woods like suburban kangaroos and mimicked what we knew of the film. When I finally watched it near Halloween my freshman year of college, I desperately wanted my roommate (a jerk) to come back. I had every desk lamp and fluorescent on to cover those corners. Damn, that final shot of the guy in the corner still gives me shivers. I’ve even tried to rewatch the film with the intent of mocking it. That’s my way of getting over fear. Didn’t work…so be aware that, if Lake Mungo is suitably creepy, you’ll be giving my insomnia a sense of foreboding.

    1. For me, it’s the kid’s laughing as they shake the tent. Lake Mungo’s creepy is different. It’s more . . . emotional, and for me it lingers on. It’s not scary like Blair Witch, but there is one part that still gives me chills.

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