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Dark History and Evil Are Unearthed in “The Moogai”

Shari Sebbens attends the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “The Moogai” premiere at The Ray Theatre in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Donayle West/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Stephanie Ornelas

Most of us know of The Boogeyman. Well, director John Bell introduces us to something much more sinister…meet The Moogai

Bell’s chilling Midnight premiere of the same name, which screened at The Ray Theatre on January 21 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, opens with a visceral flashback in colonial Australia. Aboriginal mothers and their children are gleefully playing and enjoying their day when they’re interrupted by suit-clad government agents who have arrived to snatch and re-home the Indigenous children with white parents — it’s a true nightmare. 

But when two sisters attempt to escape the government agents, they find a cave to evade them temporarily, unbeknownst to them that a much more evil being is lurking. Its name is the Moogai — it means both “the boogeyman” and “white man,” and it’s intent on snatching children for its own cruel reasons. 

Set against the backdrop of colonial Australia, Bell’s film follows the legacy and long-term effects of government practices that forcibly separated Aboriginal children from their families and culture while assimilating them into a new one — a traumatic event symbolic of the pervasive cultural disruption that forever altered Australia’s Indigenous communities.

Fast-forward to modern day, where one of the sisters, Sarah (Shari Sebbens), who was a part of the “stolen generations” adopted by white parents, has just given birth to her second child, who becomes the Moogai’s next target. Sarah begins to hallucinate with vivid dreams that the creature is coming for her newborn, she finds herself falling into a dark abyss trying to protect her child.

“I’m still kind of processing the film,” says Meyne Wyatt, who plays Fergus. This was Wyatt’s first time watching the film along with audience members. “I think it affected me more than I thought it was going to, because my father was taken away from his family when he was a kid. And I didn’t think about that before watching the film. You read a script and you don’t know exactly what it is. My job is finished when the last take happens. And there wasn’t much rehearsal. We just rolled with the punches.”  

Bell skillfully balances true terror with cultural relevance, infusing the film with scares and haunting imagery while addressing the generational trauma caused by these travesties. His film transcends geographical boundaries, offering a universal horror experience that prompts reflection on historical injustices for global audiences and communities. 

Though this is certainly a horror film, Bell didn’t want to lead with jump scares, explains the film’s director of photography Sean Ryan.  

“Speaking with John early on, he didn’t want to just rely on jumps. John being a child of the ‘80s, he really loved these Hollywood films and filmmakers like Spielberg,” says Ryan. “So it was nice to kind of bring in devices of tension and play with light and what you did see and what you didn’t see.”   

Through this chilling exploration, The Moogai emerges as a dark and potent cinematic experience, unraveling the threads of cultural identity and historical trauma in one suspenseful and thought-provoking narrative.

“It’s such a great reminder that stories are incredible vehicles to speak the truth. It takes us a lot to process it because they’re real,” says Sebbens. “The truth is a million times scarier than this movie.”   

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.