(director/writer: Jon Bell; cinematographer: Sean Ryan; editor: Simone Njoo Ase; music: Steve Francis; cast: Shari Sebbens (Sarah), Meyne Wyatt (Fergus), Tessa Rose (Ruth), Jahdeana Mary (Chloe), Clarence Ryan (Ray Boy), Mary Bell (Mabus), Bella Heathcote (Becky); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Kristina Ceyton, Samantha Jennings, Mitchell Stanley; Causeway Films; 2024-Australia)

“Despite its strong production values the film doesn’t work.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The turgid Aboriginal supernatural horror pic is the Aussie filmmaker Jon Bell’s feature film debut. This version is an ambitious expansion of Bell’s 2021 film of the same title that ran for 14 minutes, but surprisingly is less effective than the short. The feature film couldn’t duplicate the success of the short because of its lame direction, poor script and ineffective acting.

Moogai is defined as a boogeyman from folklore who snatches Aboriginal children with its sickly, talon-like fingers.
The pic is shot as an allegory, whereby Bell addresses the remorse over the ‘crimes committed in the name of protection’ by the Australian government in what has become known in history as the “Stolen Generations.” Bell uses the featured predatory Moogai monster as a metaphor for the government whites who between 1910-1970 snatched the mixed-race children of the Indigenous in a dubious white assimilation program that shamefully placed the children in state wards.

The pregnant white looking Sarah (Shari Sebbens), an Aboriginal young lawyer rising in her field, tells the colleague in her firm, Becky (Bella Heathcote), she wants nothing to do with her elderly Indigenous dark-skinned mother Ruth (Tessa Rose), after years away from her but who is now back in her life, living in her home. Though both Sarah’s husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt) and daughter Chloe (Jahdeana Mary) love her and welcome her company.

Sarah goes into labor and returns home with her son Jacob after a rough birth, and starts having bad visions. Ruth fears the visions mean the spirit of the boogeyman Moogai is after the child and resorts to going into traditional rituals to stop the monster from taking the child. A disgusted Sarah kicks Ruth out of her house.

At home no one else sees Sarah’s disturbing visions, as she’s sedated and forcibly placed in a psych ward. But Fergus becomes alarmed when he also sees the evil spirit in a recent photo of his wife and child, and sneaks her out of the ward and takes the family for a long car ride to the remote homeland where Ruth lives. There the family wage a traditional fight to save Jacob from being snatched by the Moogai.

In the longer version, what should have been scary and in earnest seems absurd. Despite its strong production values the film doesn’t work.

It played at the Sundance Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 2/14/2024  GRADE: C+