Terror lurks among innocence in Ann Turner's cult horror Celia (1989)
Also known as Celia: Child Of Terror, Ann Turner's 1989 debut is currently marketed by Second Run as a full-blown horror picture, but it's actually a sensitive coming-of-age tale fraught with the complexities of youth, set against a backdrop of rabbit plague and roaring communism in 1957 Australia. It tells the story of 9-year-old Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart), a disturbed and anti-social young girl with a powerful imagination. The film opens with the death of her Grandmother, and the young girl grieves as she also fears the monsters known as Hobyahs, which she reads about in a fairytale at school. Soon she befriends new neighbors (the Tanner's) but family tensions rise as it is revealed that the parents are communists. The children form a strong bond and have rock fights with a rival gang, while Celia longs for a pet rabbit. As you can see, for such a small film there's an awful lot going on...
I previously called Second Run out for bad marketing but Celia is also an effective horror film; it's just that most of the horror is internally psychological, cannily mixing familiar under-the-bed (reds?) monster mechanics to act as allegory for political paranoia. A scene of children burning voodoo dolls, chanting "take them, take them, take them" would seemingly be more at home in Village Of The Damned (John Carpenter, 1995) than a domestic drama, but it fits perfectly into the haunted mid-50s period evoked by Turner. Ten years into the Cold War and at the end of the second Red Scare (1947 - 1957), the film finds us in a turbulent Australia. Conservative Prime Minster Robert Menzies invaded the homes of citizens with paranoia and suspicion, even of friends and neighbors. Communists were painted as the enemy while hermetic seculars were formed on suburban blocks. As the film is largely told from Celia's point of view this adult nightmare that she suffers at the hands of becomes a reality when her pet rabbit ("vermin, like snakes and rats", according to her father) is marked by a burning poker at the hands of bullies. It's a scary and emotional sequence shot in the dead of night, where a rival gang lock Celia and the Tanner kids in a small shed and brand the rabbit with a cross so "they know which one to take" - in reference to government officials and police officers, who plan to rid the town of the rabbit plague once and for all by banning even pets.
Celia may not know it but her wide-eyed innocence provides the films voice of reason. We often laugh at the things children say, or write them off. But children can also be incredibly perceptive; they don't see the world according to law books and politics. For Celia a person isn't represented by their beliefs but by their character. When her father confronts her, labeling the Tanner family "communists" she replies simply with, "they're my friends." This black-and-white simplicity actually works, and paints her - without resorting to cliché or beyond-her-years insight - as a thoughtful girl growing into womanhood, albeit with all the confusions that brings. She understands not the reason for her father burning Grandmother's Marxist books but simply that they were Grandmothers, and therefore should be treated with respect. As Lenin blazes in the Carmichael's backyard the young girl's imagination drifts to her dead Grandmother, resulting in a chilling scene that sees her ghost scratching on the window of Celia's bedroom. The fractured relationships and mixed messages of unfounded antipathy that surround her begin to morph with her own fears, and Uncle Burke (the Police Inspector who threatened to take her rabbit away) takes the form of a Hobyah.
Eventually Celia's emotions become uncontrollable and without a guiding force she takes drastic action... reaching for her fathers shotgun. When she shoots down the Hobyah (Burke) she is somehow liberated. She lives in greater fear, sure, but her understanding of the world is more pronounced. She streaks lipstick across her cheeks to become animal; reduce herself to the state of hunter. When she fires the shotgun it's her coming-of-age. This is her primal scream; her standing of ground as an individual and not a collective. It's interesting that I should watch this film directly after Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970), another film that finds a girl blending reality and fiction when faced with the hardships of the world; of course Valerie is a fairytale in the tradition of Czech surrealism and finds its home in their 60s/70s New Wave, whereas Celia is effectively a sociopolitical creature feature, where the creature plays second fiddle to character dynamics. The key comparison is that they're both movies about young girls going down the rabbit hole and finding there a darker reflection than they were expecting. It all comes back to 1 Corinthians 13, although Valerie's transition is into womanhood and sexual liberation, and Celia's is a journey of defining confidence, independence and strength. The closest Celia comes to pure fantasy is in its visualization of the Hobyah story - with the creatures stalking a forest and burning down the quaint patchwork house of an old man. Ultimately Celia has to be sold for what it is - a dark drama with elements of horror. The performance by the young Smart, as the awkward Celia, is absolutely terrific and is the icing on the cake of an unsentimental and emotionally devastating film. Truly, Celia is the definition of a lost classic.
For another (excellent) take on Celia, check out my friend and fellow critic Sam Inglis' piece over at MultiMediaMouth.