Review by Sean Boelman
Australian horror is experiencing a renaissance after the breakout success of last year’s Talk to Me, so don’t be surprised if more spooky flicks from Down Under start popping up on the festival circuit. Jon Bell’s The Moogai, adapted from his short of the same name, hopes to cash in on that success but is unfortunately far too bland to make much of a splash.
The film follows a young couple who, having just welcomed their second child into the world, begin to suspect that there may be an ancient spirit trying to take their baby from them. As is the case with many feature films adapted from shorts, The Moogai really struggles to expand upon its concept in a compelling way.
There are some interesting themes in the film about the colonial past of Australia and how many Indigenous Australians have felt pressure to assimilate into modern society and abandon their cultures — and superstitions. However, these feel somewhat underdeveloped, with the film instead leaning on more generic themes surrounding trauma and motherhood.
Surprisingly, Bell’s script does a very good job of getting the audience to side with the protagonist. Of course, the nature of the story is that she does some really terrible things due to the hallucinations she is experiencing. Yet there’s still such a sense of sadness and regret to the character that the audience never loses sympathy for her.
Unfortunately, while the characters can be compelling, the acting is pretty subpar across the board. Shari Sebbens plays the lead role in a way that feels entirely lacking in authenticity, and while Meyne Wyatt is meant to be a very supportive partner to Sebbens’s character, he plays it aloof in a way that creates an awkward distance. Bella Heathcote also has a supporting role in the film, but it’s so insignificant that it feels like she was cast simply to raise the film's profile.
Where Bell shoots himself in the foot, though, is the pacing of the film. It’s never scary, and while the film is constantly building to an explosive end, the conclusion we get feels mostly anticlimactic. The entire third act is so rushed, in fact, it almost feels like they ran out of money and had to cut several scenes.
From a technical standpoint, the film has the qualities of a particularly cheesy studio horror flick. The score is overbearing and generic, trying so desperately to ramp up the tension in scenes that don’t deserve it that it’s frankly embarrassing. The visual effects aren’t very good, either, including the creature design that feels utterly generic.
The Moogai isn’t a terrible film by any means, and there are enough interesting things to be found in it to make it watchable. In terms of quality, it’s basically on the level of a low-to-mid-tier Blumhouse project. But as far as Australian festival horror goes, it’s definitely more Run Rabbit Run than Talk to Me in terms of breakout potential.
The Moogai screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.