Growing up in an Indigenous Aboriginal family in Australia, nothing was scarier to horror director Jon Bell than the government. He recalls the “Stolen Generations,” a tragedy that Americans likely know little about.
“The government would take light-skinned kids — or just any kids they could get their hands on — and rehouse them,” he said. “It’s a pretty common tool of colonizers to try and take kids and make them convert to this other culture.”
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Bell opens his new movie “The Moogai” — premiering at this year’s Sundance midnight selections — by putting audiences in the middle of one of these traumatic moments, a flashback in which Aboriginal children at play with their mothers are suddenly pursued by heartless men in suits, hoping to snatch them up.
The kids quickly run into another monster: The titular Moogai, a creature hell-bent on stealing children. The word has several meanings for the Aboriginal people, but most notably, it’s both “Boogeyman” and “white man.” For the Stolen Generation, the fears were the same.
The film then shifts from this historical run-in to the modern day, where a new baby seems to be in the Moogai’s sights. Unfortunately, his mother (Shari Sebbens) is far removed from her heritage after being adopted by white parents and is not eager to take advice from her concerned Aboriginal birth mother (Tessa Rose), whose sister was snatched in the film’s opening.
The film keeps one foot squarely in the horror realm, never skimping on scares in service of the story. Although the generational trauma vibrates in nearly every scene, Bell was intent on making sure his movie was entertaining above all. He cites his love of American movies from the ‘80s that feature an “unstoppable threat” — like Freddy Krueger, Xenomorphs and Michael Myers — as inspirations to keep audiences scared, even as he was telling a culturally relevant story.
“Such a big focus for me was to find a way to meld my issues and Aboriginal social issues with a love of genre,” he said. “I wanted to try and find the middle point so that the film’s not a hard slog. There’s entertainment, there’s hopefully a laugh or two, there’s some scares.”
Bell’s film is universal enough to appeal to audiences who might not know anything about Aboriginal history but also could make a serious impact when it opens in Australia, as the country has not fully reckoned with past horrors. Just as Jordan Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out” was able to make a splash with the popcorn crowd while forcing audiences to think critically about the dark side of American history, “The Moogai” could have a similar impact in Australia — whether they’re ready for that discussion or not.
“People here are afraid that talking about this history could start discussions about reparations or things like that,” he said. “It’s treated with an anxiety that Australia has about talking about these kinds of issues because you’re afraid of what it might open the door to. it’s a Western country trying to come to terms with the dark history.”
Even after completing “The Moogai,” there is little relief for Bell, who says that when his grandchildren were born he and his wife were concerned that there could be interference at the hospital.
“We were still concerned about nurses making reports to the government,” he said. “To say, ‘This protocol wasn’t followed, or that protocol.’ It’s still an enforced culture to have a child and treat them in a certain way — otherwise, the government will take them. That fear is still very much there. That trauma moves through generations.”
Watch an exclusive clip from “The Moogai” below.
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