Stories of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” — Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families by a white government — fuel the central metaphor in “The Moogai,” Jon Bell’s Sundance horror movie based on his 2020 short film. Unfortunately, this well-meaning metaphorical approach defines the strict boundaries of Bell’s feature debut, a brief but languid thriller rife with reminders of meaning that fail to coalesce into something thrilling or moving.
A riveting prologue, set decades in the past, orients the viewer within Australia’s torrid history, as white men in suits attempt to chase down and kidnap Black children on an Aboriginal reserve. Two of these kids, a pair of young sisters, evade this fate of ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation, though one of them ends up taken by a supernatural force hiding in the shadows: the Moogai, a folkloric boogeyman who snatches children with its sickly, talon-like fingers.
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The main story, however, is set in present day. One of the surviving girls, Ruth (now an elderly woman, played by an impeccably dialed-in Tessa Rose) still bears the facial scars of her encounter with the Moogai. We’re dropped into an ongoing family saga as she visits her pregnant biological daughter Sarah (Shari Sebbens), the film’s de-facto protagonist, with whom she was recently re-united. As Sarah and her husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt) welcome their second child, the baby Jacob, his arrival is accompanied by strange voices and happenings — warnings that the mysterious Moogai might be on its way to snatch Jacob next, sending Sarah down a rabbit hole of… well, not quite madness, but certainly animated self-doubt.
“The Moogai” wears its metaphors on its sleeve, though they don’t end up woven into the narrative with very much skill. The intention is thoughtful, but its artistic execution is anything but. It’s a film whose rote horror movie tropes fail to deftly hold and release tension. Blame that on framing where that which ought to be jarring, stirring and hidden is made far too visible to be impactful, coupled with editing that robs each reveal and jump scare of its impact.
The film is loaded with self-evident subtext, though little of it is mined dramatically or conceptually. Just as Sarah, a light-skinned, white-passing woman, deals with the simultaneous physical complications of a difficult birth and the emotional complications of being reunited with the Black mother from whom she was once stolen, she’s also forced to confront the fact that Jacob — her own white-passing child, as opposed to the visibly Black daughter she already has — might be the victim of that same lineage of forced removal from one’s parents and culture. And yet, the onus of this confrontation (and any possibility of Sarah’s own biases) is entirely on the audience to consider, and to intellectualize, rather than it being a lurking possibility within the movie’s subtext or presentation. The camera rarely holds on any space or character long enough to introduce complex possibilities through reaction or contemplation.
The Moogai is frequently described as a “long-armed” creature — a reference, perhaps, to the long arm of the law — but despite the numerous loaded metaphors at the film’s disposal, this boogeyman also ends up literal in its presentation, in a way that ironically severs it from Bell’s tale of intergenerational trauma. That the Moogai is anything but scary in appearance is perhaps a secondary concern, when its implications aren’t nearly as chilling as they should be.
The idea of white assimilation surrounds Sarah on all sides, from her own adoption by white parents and her rejection of Ruth’s indigenous beliefs, to the dismissiveness with which she speaks to her visibly Black daughter and husband, to the many white cops, doctors and lawyers in the film who readily victimize Aboriginal subjects. Those social dynamics are treated as background artifacts, while the white supporting characters end up playing a part in a flimsy social drama that feels, at best, incidental or parallel to the story of the Moogai.
When the movie eventually ties its cultural double entendres together, it leaves no lurking fears to the imagination. Its only open question by the end is whether Sebbens is a capable actress, since Bell’s filmmaking seems intent on hiding her talents at every turn. She holds her own opposite Rose, who brings a vivid sense of hurt and humanity to Ruth. But unfortunately, her own role as Sarah requires her to navigate stilted dialogue and inhumane behaviors that serve the logistics of the plot and the movie’s outward shape, rather than emotional nuance that might give way to human terror and anguish.
Ultimately, “The Moogai” is a movie whose gestures in the realm of metaphor might inform or interest viewers about Australian history, though this function is primarily academic. Sadly, its attempts to express the lingering pain and far-reaching historical trauma behind these experiences are rendered moot by dull and tensionless filmmaking.
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