Between 1910 and 1970, tens of thousands of mixed-race children of Australian Aboriginal descent were forcibly removed from their parents and communities, becoming wards of the state. That human rights violation carried out in the name of “protection” and assimilation has been the subject of books, documentaries and narrative features, notably Phillip Noyce’s gripping 2002 drama, Rabbit-Proof Fence. Few Indigenous filmmakers have been given the opportunity to explore the unhealable wound of the “Stolen Generations,” which makes Jon Bell’s The Moogai deserving of attention, deftly weaving a legacy of trauma into supernatural horror.
Writer-director Bell expanded the screenplay from his intense 2021 short of the same name, a punchy 14 minutes that make chillingly effective use of sound and mostly unseen terrors to convey a young couple’s escalating fear for their newborn baby and their ultimate helplessness to escape the grasp of a malevolent spirit. A powerful closing image eloquently places the story in its painful historical context.
The Bottom Line
Terrific idea, patchy execution.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Cast: Shari Sebbens, Meyne Wyatt, Tessa Rose, Clarence Ryan, Jahdeana Mary, Mary Torrens Bell, Precious Ann, Tara Morice, Nic Cassim, Luke Ford, Eden Falk, Toby Leonard Moore, Bella Heathcote
Director-screenwriter: Jon Bell
1 hour 26 minutes
Short films are a tricky medium. For every example that makes smart use of the condensed time frame to tell a pithy story, there are countless others that play like incomplete doodles. The Moogai, in its original form, is a riveting watch.
Extended to 86 minutes, the film remains a striking allegory, building on the Stolen Generations inspiration to touch on everything from postpartum depression to Indigenous mythology to racial identity and parent-child reconciliation. It’s an ambitious bid to inject cultural relevance into boogeyman horror, though it dilutes the impact of the short film, suffering from uneven performances and occasionally stiff direction.
The movie gets off to a strong start, with DP Sean Ryan’s camera capturing the sun beating down on bucolic bushland as two young Indigenous sisters sing while playing a clapping game and other children frolic in a nearby clearing. But the tranquil scene is interrupted when two white men drive up; the one adult woman in the group whistles, signaling, “Run!” As the kids disperse, one of the sisters seeks shelter in a cave, but a creepy growl reveals she’s not alone. Her older sister arrives just in time to see the girl dragged into the darkness by an unseen force.
Cut to half a century or so later. Heavily pregnant Sarah (Shari Sebbens) is being toasted for closing a major deal at the city law firm where she’s on the way up. She confesses to her colleague Becky (Bella Heathcote) that she has nothing in common with Ruth (Tessa Rose), the Indigenous birth mother who has recently come into her life. But her husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt) and daughter Chloe (Jahdeana Mary) seem to love the old woman.
Complications occur when Sarah goes into emergency labor. A near-death experience on the operating table prompts her doctor to warn of possible side effects when she and Fergus return home with their baby boy, Jacob. Visions begin to trouble Sarah, first when she’s cracking eggs to make an omelet, and then more insistently, when she starts seeing an Indigenous girl with white eyes around the house, whispering ominous warnings. This causes tension with Fergus, who dismisses her fears as dreams brought on by exhaustion. Sleep meds don’t make the visions stop.
Ruth is a character new to the feature, an addition that’s one of the smarter enhancements Bell makes to the adaptation, and Rose makes a strong impression in the role. Her close bond with Chloe brings in the element not just of trauma but of resilience passed down through generations, drawing out the idea of women as protectors. But Sarah continues to scoff at Ruth’s talk of a “Moogai,” and of white-eyed children representing those taken by the entity, throwing her mother out of the house.
While there’s not enough in the way of sustained suspense, the climactic stretch picks up the pace when Fergus finally sees a blurred image of the spirit in the background of photos of his wife and baby. This causes him to pack the family into the car and drag the heavily sedated Sarah out of a psych ward where she’s being held under observation against her will, one of a handful of plot points indicating ongoing oppression and stigmatization. The concluding scenes go big, with Sarah and Chloe joining Ruth in her rural homeland — the place first seen in the prologue — to make a stand against the “stealer of children.”
The Moogai emerges from the shadows only in the final act. The creature design is physically imposing and convincingly abhorrent, though while Bell throws in circles of fire and a mass of writhing snakes, the ending is short on power. The director wisely limits the use of jump scares and other standard tropes, but there’s a lack of command in what should be a pulse-pounding battle between the women and the beast attempting to take Jacob from them.
What saves The Moogai is its haunting final image, a variation on the same closing shot from the short film. The feature shows promise, but coming from the same producers as Australian horror breakouts The Babadook and Talk to Me, it measures up in conception only.