Over the course of six decades (1910-1970), tens of thousands of Australian Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes due to the assimilation policies that were in place at the time. These policies claimed that the lives of First Nations people would be improved if they became part of white society, and an effort to breed out color from the Aboriginal population was carried out. Unsurprisingly, the lives of the removed children were not improved, with studies showing that many of them developed adverse reactions to their removal like mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, among others. These children became known as The Stolen Generation, and their experiences left a black mark in Australia’s history.
Writer/director Jon Bell, adapting his award-winning 2021 short film of the same name, taps into this unsavory event with The Moogai, yet another monster-as-a-metaphor horror drama that mostly succeeds when it acts as a drama, but falls short when it shifts into genre territory.
The Moogai introduces us to Sarah (Shari Sebbens, reprising her role from the short film), an Aboriginal woman who was removed from her mother’s home and placed with a white family. When we meet her, she is about to give birth to her second child with her husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt, also reprising his role from the short). A near-death scare during the birth causes Sarah’s repressed trauma to resurface in the form of the Moogai, a malevolent spirit who has designs on her new baby. Struggling to come to terms with her birth mother Ruth (Tessa Rose) and dealing with years of unresolved trauma, Sarah’s mental state begins to deteriorate as the Moogai moves closer and closer to her and her newborn child.
The Moogai is the rare film to be adapted from a short that has too many elements at play. Bell introduces subplot after subplot, quickly establishing a conflict before moving on to the next one. The script feels more like an outline for a feature than a fully-developed one, as most of these subplots aren’t given much attention beyond their single scenes. They all play a part in Sarah’s mental deterioration, but it’s disappointing that nothing about these scenes operate for any other reason. Bell has plenty of material to fill a feature-length film, but seems resistant to stay in one place for too long. Subplots involving Sarah’s co-worker Becky (Bella Heathcote, Relic) disappear as quickly as they’re introduced. A confrontation with a rude teacher (Alexandra Jensen, Talk to Me) similarly doesn’t amount to much, other than to reiterate that everyone around Sarah is starting to believe that she is losing her mind.
There’s a distinct emotional charge to the scenes that Sarah shares with her birth mother, and they resonate deeply. Sarah not only views her mother as less than, but doesn’t even consider her to be her real mother. Efforts on Ruth’s part to help Sarah fall on deaf ears, with Sarah dismissing Ruth’s unfamiliar Aboriginal practices as nothing more than superstitious dreck. These moments stand out the most, whereas the two scenes Sarah shares with her adoptive mother Annette (Tara Morice) frustrate because Bell resists the urge to dive into that relationship in any sort of meaningful way.
Much like last year’s other Australian Sundance outing Run Rabbit Run (review), The Moogai is bound to draw comparisons to The Babadook (fitting, as that film had its world premiere at Sundance 10 years ago and shares a few producers with The Moogai). Like that film, it also suffers from the use of uninspired horror tropes to get a rise out of the viewer. Nightmare fake-out scares are aplenty, Sarah hallucinates snakes that aren’t there (or are they?), little ghost girls with white eyes occasionally pop up to offer Sarah cryptic warnings about the Moogai (“He’s coming.” “He’s watching you.” “He’s coming for them.”), and the eponymous creature serves as a metaphor for Sarah’s trauma. It’s par for the course at this point, but it comes across as lazy when it should have been inspired.
Having the Moogai act a metaphor for Sarah’s generational trauma is nothing the genre hasn’t seen before, but The Moogai barely scratches the surface when it comes to the lasting effects of Sarah’s removal from her mother’s home. It’s a credit to Sebbens’ performance that it works as well as it does, but Bell’s screenplay, with its refusal to stay in one place for too long, lacks a cohesive narrative. That being said, Sebbens’ commands the screen in her scenes, even if the film surrounding her isn’t pulling the same amount of weight.
It’s not all for naught, though, as the climactic confrontation with the titular beast elicits the necessary thrills. The creature itself is brought to life by impressive practical effects and a creepy physical performance from actor Paul Chambers. There are times when the sequence can be a bit hokey, such as a moment when Sarah offers a cliché one-liner as she attacks the beast, but the intended effect is successfully achieved for the most part.
There is a very important story being told in The Moogai. It’s just a shame that it isn’t given the proper attention it deserves, with Bell opting for cheap scares and surface-level observations instead of something richer. The pieces are all there, but the execution is lacking, making for a film that’s content being aggressively fine when it could have been something much more resonant.
The Moogai premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Release date TBA.