Boston Underground Film Festival 2023: A Poignant and Entrancing Journey to Moon Garden

Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

I think I’ve become an Augie Duke fan. Over the course of the last few years, I’ve seen her name pop up in films and have become genuinely thrilled to see it. Most people probably haven’t recognized her star on the rise, but I certainly have. From Benson and Moorhead’s Spring, Groundhog Day horror film 6:45, or Shane Brady’s Christmas fantasy Breathing Happy, Duke is getting attached to great horror projects left and right. While her role in Boston Underground Film Festival’s Moon Garden is a little more supportive, it’s still a hell of a performance. However, she’s contending with another actress in the film that also deserves a lot of praise. Haven Lee Harris, the exceptionally talented five-year-old star of Moon Garden, plays Duke’s daughter Emma who goes on a magnificent expedition across an ethereal plane to return to her parents.

Sara lies down with her daughter Emma in the moonlight in Moon Garden
Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

I have to admit that up until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about Moon Garden, and since seeing it Saturday, I haven’t stopped talking about it. JP Nunez introduced me to the film on the Horror Obsessive podcast a few weeks ago, where he made me read his article and watch the trailer. He sold me on it pretty quickly, but I never expected to be as completely blown away by it as I was.  

The film opens with Emma being awakened by her mother, Sara (Duke), in the middle of the night as Sara intends to abscond with her child away from her husband, Alex (Brionne Davis). Catching Sara in the act, Alex and Sara argue back and forth while Emma hears the muffled discussions through the paper-thin walls and slightly ajar doors. Due to her parents fighting, Emma suffers a jaw-dropping accident. As she drifts into a coma, she wakes up in a world outside her body where she is pursued by a frightening faceless creature with chattering teeth (Morgana Ignis) that wants to feast on her tears. 

The fantasy world created by writer-director Ryan Stevens Harris, Haven’s father, is nothing less than fantastic. Based on his short film Every Child Is a Dream with Teeth, scenes and backgrounds in Moon Garden reference horror elements in Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Pan’s Labyrinth, and perhaps some David Cronenberg films, too. Fantasy elements conjure up the obvious mention of Terry Gilliam with a slice of Hayao Miyazaki. Moon Garden is one hell of a creative sandbox where the Harris’ play and create an artistic Wonderland on a limited budget. From excellently made practical effects to the lavish spectacle of its production design, Moon Garden whisks you into a stunning, beautiful, and terrifying world. 

Emma walks through a desert at night amidst a giant hand sticking up from the sand in Moon Garden
Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

Armed with only a radio she can hear her parents through, Emma must evade the Teeth creature and find a way back to reality. On the way, she meets a trio of helpful specters willing to aid Emma on her journey in significantly strange ways. Though they are supportive, some ghosts present as slightly threatening at first. Emma, as a very young child, cannot discern any ill intent. Her adolescent innocence allows her not to prejudge situations with a shock of horror. Instead, Emma explores her youthful curiosity with the hope of helping as well as receiving help. The time spent with each is brief as Emma experiences flashbacks triggered by moments in her mystical odyssey that integrally bridge her past and potential future. The idea of a lost childhood is at stake here while, over the radio, the audience hears Emma’s parents’ desperate pleas to save them from the heartache of losing a child. 

Harry Nilsson’s “[I Can’t Live If Living Is] Without You” permeates throughout the film. Tonally, it sets itself in a lullaby but doubles as an anthemic mantra for Emma to make her way back to her parents. The heartbreaking rendition flows through parts of the film’s score, too, transfusing the bleakest parts of the film just as much as the uplifting portions. Michael Deragon’s score and Nilson’s song hit you right in the gut. Combined with the opus of magnificent colors and creativity, the effect is intoxicatingly synesthetic, triggering a heightened fight response that connected me to Emma as if I were her parent, wanting to protect her from the bad things she was encountering. 

A faceless character intimidates a crouched Emma by leaning their faceless-void into Emma's face.
Image Courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

The outpouring of empathy I experienced while watching Moon Garden is beyond anything I have ever experienced. Sitting in the theater, I became emotionally overwhelmed and cried so much the movie may as well have said Pixar on it instead of Oscilloscope. When a film can absorb me to the extent of being able to rip me apart the way Moon Garden did, I have to sing its praises. Sure, the monstrous face void of chattering teeth born from and thirsty for Emma’s tears is pretty scary, but feeling the collective woe in the parents’ possibility of grief is a relatable fear beyond anything supernatural.  

Ryan Stevens Harris pulls together a beautifully written story of a family breaking apart and the thematic consequences of a tragic accident that threaten to shatter it beyond restoration. Metaphorically, the journey is about what we remember, what might be, and what’s paramount in life. It reminds us of films like Alice in Wonderland, The Fall, What Dreams May Come, Mad God, and The Blazing World. Moon Garden is the first film I’ve seen in 2023 that I can genuinely champion. I loved every heart-wrenchingly, life-affirming, and poignant moment, and it’s on a very short list of my favorite films of the year so far. 

Moon Garden played on March 25 as a part of The Boston Underground Film Festival and received the Audience Award for Best First Feature.  

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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