Spoiler-Free Film Review: “The Moogai” (Sundance Film Festival)

January 27, 2024

Written by Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry is the Film Festival Editor for Horror Fuel; all film festival related queries and announcements should be sent to him at josephperry@gmail.com. He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Gruesome Magazine, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.

Writer/director Jon Bell combines post-pregnancy horror with social commentary in his Australian feature The Moogai, the 2024 expansion of his 2021 short film. The result is a mixed bag, as Bell addresses the tragic aspect of Australia’s infamous “Stolen Generations” — when thousands of mixed-race children of Australian Aboriginal descent between 1910–1970 were forcibly taken from their homes by the white government in an assimilation effort —  using a monster as a metaphor. 

Expectant mother Sarah (Shari Sebbens) has recently come into contact with her Indigenous birth mother Ruth (Tessa Rose). She feels she has nothing in common with Ruth and is short-tempered with her and dismissive of her traditional beliefs. Sarah’s husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt) and their young daughter Chloe (Jahdeana Mary), however, are very affectionate toward Ruth.

After the birth of the couple’s son Jacob, Ruth attempts to ward off the coming of the child-stealing spirit called The Moogai in her daughter’s home using traditional rituals, which is the final straw for Sarah, and she kicks her birth mother out of their house. As seasoned horror cinema fans might guess, Ruth should have listened to Sarah.

The focus on social injustice is earnest, and the metaphor of the Moogai is quite obvious (I’ll avoid going into details here to avoid spoilers). A problem with the film is that it plays on well-worn horror cliches — particularly those found in pregnancy horror films, such as the mother seeing disturbing visions that no one else can, and everything being fine when it seems that something terrifying was occurring to her — without adding anything new to the mix.

Production values are strong, and though the performances are overall quite good, the situations in which the characters are placed are often predictable. The titular creature is played well in a physical performance by Paul Chambers but the monster’s design also draws on elements that creature feature fans have seen before.

The Moogai screens as part of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs in Salt Lake City and Park City Utah, from January 18–28 with a virtual option from January 25–28. For more information, visit https://festival.sundance.org/.

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