The Moogai Puts a Monstrous Spin on Generational Trauma

Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A modern folk horror tale that draws upon Australia’s troubled history to enhance its monstrous elements, The Moogai also includes an exploration of postpartum depression. Unfortunately, its one-dimensional plot ultimately detracts from the elements that make it an otherwise unique story.

It’s rare to see a horror film that centers contemporary Aboriginal characters. The Moogai, which writer-director Jon Bell expanded from his award-winning short, follows Sarah (Shari Sebbens), a successful lawyer happily married to Fergus (Meyne Wyatt); they have a young daughter together with another baby on the way. When Sarah goes into labor, there are dangerous complications, but thankfully both mother and son pull through. As Sarah recuperates, however, she starts having scary hallucinations—most frequently a small girl whispering warnings that “he’s coming”—and her state of mind begins to deteriorate.

There is zero mystery about who “he” is. The Moogai starts with an on-screen dictionary definition of the movie’s title, in which we’re told “Moogai” means “stealer of children.” It goes right into a flashback of Aboriginal kids running away from white men who’ve turned up at their rural mission, presumably hunting for children to carry away for assimilation. We see a girl who’s chosen a cave as her hiding place being pulled away by a clawed creature while her sister barely escapes. Then, when we meet Sarah’s birth mother, Ruth (Tessa Rose), who is now tentatively re-entering her life, we see she has the facial scars of someone who was mauled by a monster many decades ago.

Though Sarah’s white adoptive parents are portrayed amiably, the theme of “stolen kids” has already been established, in both government-sanctioned and supernatural ways. Obviously, racism (another important theme here) is a big part of the former, while baby-grabbing monsters pop up in folklore across various cultures. As The Moogai progresses, it becomes obvious that Sarah needs to open up to Ruth if she wants to protect her children; the bulk of the movie is spent establishing how much she does not want to do that. It’s also clear that facing her family’s traumatic past will be the only way Sarah can triumph—but unfortunately the plot drags, frustratingly, as Sarah goes through the emotional wringer trying to figure that out for herself.

Another recent horror project—Apple TV+’s Victor LaValle adaptation The Changeling—centered on a similar story of postpartum depression that’s revealed to be intertwined with a malevolent, baby-thieving entity—but its journey (which, granted, was spread across several TV episodes) was a far less predictable one. The Moogai’s interest in highlighting a terrible chapter in history is admirable, and both Sebbens and Rose give emotional, powerful performances. But the movie’s horror elements are too familiar, and its metaphors too heavy-handed, to make The Moogai feel like a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts.

The Moogai premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It does not have a release date as of yet.

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