It seems these days the devil’s designs have strayed from virginal teen girls to kindergarteners. Whether stuffing them in animatronic suits or isolating them in apocalyptic cabins, the worst thing an au courant horror villain can do is harm children. The second-worst sin is to disbelieve a mother. The Moogai, Jon Bell’s feature debut based on his short film of the same name, wears these trends like a badge of honor. But while The Moogai comes by its earnest messaging honestly––the real horrors stem from Australian colonialism––it just feels like a different take on old tropes.

At the center of the action is Sarah (Shari Sebbens), a new mom in the middle of her own Rosemary’s Baby-like conspiracy. Newly pregnant Sarah is trying to cold-shoulder her biological mom, Ruth (Tessa Rose), and the Aboriginal culture she’s eager to share, but her daughter, Chloe (Jahdeana Mary), and husband, Fergus (Meyne Wyatt), welcome the new relative. Sarah briefly dies on the day her son, Jacob, is born. Soon after she’s visited by a white-eyed indigenous girl who’s fond of eerie nighttime warnings and plagued by hallucinations of harm befalling Jacob. Her birth mom insists it’s all legit, that she’s caught the eye of a mythical boogeyman called the Moogai. All the white people in her life think that’s crazy talk. After many fights and frights, Sarah learns which culture to trust.

Much as The Moogai‘s social message is easy to sympathize with, it sacrifices all mystery. Even if there weren’t an opening flashback to confirm the monster’s existence––and the inhumanity of government-sanctioned kidnapping in the name of “protection”––we all know where this is going. Good liberal movie-viewers have been taught to believe women, to question the powerful. We know Rosemary was right all along, her patronizing husband the devil’s worst co-conspirator.

The richest parts of Bell’s script play with Sarah’s mistrust of her birth mother, but those scant scenes don’t go deep enough, nor does the cinematic language match them. Despite Ruth leaving Sarah a snakeskin to help ward off the Moogai, she envisions snakes attacking her baby. The ghost girl looks typically creepy and bedraggled, but we have friendlier memories of her from the flashback. These haunts may actually be benign warning signs––a compelling possibility deboned by jump-scare audiovisual cues. The resulting discord is more confusing than tense.

The monster is perhaps the saddest missed opportunity here. Its design is effectively freaky, particularly its painted-on smile, which we don’t get a good glimpse of until the third act. When we finally see the whole loathsome thing it’s rendered––like many of the film’s snakes––in disappointing CGI. These are particularly vexing shortcuts from the producers of Talk to Me and The Babadook, two indie Aussie chillers that are perhaps best-remembered for their handcrafted set pieces. What would Talk to Me be without its hand, or The Babadook without its picture book? What could The Moogai have been with some no-holds-barred practical effects?

The actors work hard to breathe new life into this predictable narrative, Sebbens especially. She starts out sympathetic and gregarious, and by the end acts out folk-horror-induced mental breakdowns so well it’ll make you want to fetch her Kleenex. Wyatt plays her husband with quiet, provocative range, demonstrating that Fergus is neither villain nor hero of this story.

The Moogai has good bones, but if its lack of narrative tension represents a positive shift in our culture, it also makes for flaccid horror. The fresh drama and mythology are given short shrift in favor of a paint-by-numbers plot and phoned-in images. Though Bell has broken some ground that renders this a novel watch, those looking for hair-raising horror or a salient social drama best lower expectations.

The Moogai premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: C

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