Scorpion Releasing and Katarina Leigh Waters treat viewers to an unexpectedly artsy and moving cinematic treat disguised as an Ozploitation horror film with Ann Turner’s award-winning CELIA: CHILD OF TERROR.
All nine year old Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart, THE COCA-COLA KID) wants for her birthday is a rabbit, but her father Ray (Nicholas Eadie, RETURN TO SNOWY RIVER) regards them as vermin (as does the Victoria government since the countryside is being overrun with wild rabbits that are eating crops). When her grandmother suddenly dies in her sleep, Celia thinks the Hobyahs – monsters from a school storybook – are responsible rather than old age (especially since Celia still sees her apparition in the nearby quarry). Celia is disappointed when she gets a bicycle rather than a rabbit for her birthday; however, new neighbors have moved in next door, and the mother Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley, THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…) looks like a younger version of her grandmother. The neighboring families get on well, particularly since the father Karl (Adrian Mitchell, MARAT/SADE) is one of Ray’s co-workers, Ray is attracted to Alice, and the Tanner kids form a gang with Celia to fight against her bullying cousin Stephanie (Amelia Frid), daughter of Ray’s army buddy John (William Zappa, THE ROAD WARRIOR), now a local police lieutenant. When Ray discovers that Alice and Karl belong to the communist group Australian Peace Council, he buys Celia a rabbit on the condition that she does not play with the Tanner kids. Celia initially keeps the promise, but the Tanner children come to her defense when Stephanie – jealous of Celia’s pet rabbit since her policeman father has sent hers to the zoo (in anticipation of the ban on pet rabbits) – and her friends attack her. When Karl loses his job, Celia blames Uncle John instead of her father (with whom she has a believable love-hate relationship) when the Tanners have to move away, and then she becomes convinced that he is one of the Hobyahs when he forcibly takes her rabbit away.
In her introduction, Katarina Leigh Waters aptly likens the film more to the psychological horrors of turbulent life seen through an imaginative child’s eyes such as CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, PAPERHOUSE, THE REFLECTING SKIN, and PAN’S LABYRINTH (more so, in my opinion, to those more modest past entries than the Del Toro film); however, the climax’s melding of reality with a monochrome Mike Mayfield crime film surely must have influenced the Orson Welles/THE THIRD MAN sequence in Peter Jackson’s HEAVENLY CREATURES. Certainly not the horror film that it has been advertised of stateside (the onscreen title is simply CELIA, with the CHILD OF TERROR subtitle only printed on the US tape release cover and cassette face), CELIA is also not a children’s film by any stretch of the imagination. The Hobyahs – the text of the story comes from James H. Fassett’s “Animal Folk Tales” but the creatures have appeared in other folklore collections – are glimpsed when Celia visualizes a passage of the story looking almost rat or rabbit-like hopping on two feet, but the briefer glimpses we get of it through Celia’s eyes in waking life are effectively jolting. The ending is not so much horrific as tragic in a “loss of innocence” sense through the attempt to keep children ignorant: Celia is told by her parents and in church that communists are “bad people” who brainwash and trick innocents, but she is unable to reconcile that with her beloved “free spirit” grandmother who kept a “Handbook of Marxism” among the many progressive books in her now-shuttered up bedroom; so is she to be blamed for interpreting another character who seems to be more evil as a literal monster? The film doesn’t endorse its final act, yet one can kind of see Celia coming away from it stronger even if she does (or will later) comprehend it as bad.
Smart gives a forceful performance for a child actor, and she is well-supported by Eadie, Longley (who died young in 2010) – who won an Australian Film Institute best supporting actress award – as well as television writer Mary-Anne Fahey as Celia’s mother (she was also nominated for the same award as Longley), and Clair Couttie as Celia’s friend Heather (whose quickly regrets how her jealousy of Celia’s new friendship with the Tanners has set some of the animosity with Stephanie in motion). The synthesizer score of Chris Neal (JACK BE NIMBLE) is comparable to Hans Zimmer’s and Stanley Myer’s work on PAPERHOUSE if not as operatic, but it surprisingly doesn’t jar with the period setting. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson – who would later shoot SHINE, UNDER THE TUSCAN SON, and OSCAR AND LUCINDA among other higher-profile films – captures Australia in the warm tones we’re used to seeing while Celia’s nightmares are captured in cool blues that seem alien against the rest of the film. Writer/director Ann Turner scripted the film years before its production. It won an award for best un-produced screenplay, and the film itself would win the Grand Prix at the Créteil International Women's Film Festival (it was also nominated at the Spanish Sitges fantasy film festival). Turner has only directed four other features to date including HAMMERS OVER THE ANVIL (1993) which Miramax picked a few years later in 2000 to exploit co-starring presence of Russell Crowe.
Scorpion’s dual-layer, progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.75:1) transfer comes from a mostly well-preserved source. There’s a bit of staining on the extreme right of the frame in one late scene between Celia and her father, which could either be damage to the element or in processing. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is clean, although only the score and effects during Celia’s nightmare visions are especially vivid. The extras have been ported over from the Australian Region 4 PAL DVD starting with a vintage “Sunday Show” profile on the film (7:04). Turner emphasizes that CELIA is not a film for children, and confirms that the film is criticizing the contemporary political longing to take Australia back to the idyllic fifties (noting a growing social intolerance). For weekend TV show coverage, it’s refreshingly substantive. Turner also appears in a newer audio interview (10:57) by The Weekend Australia film columnist David Stratton. She talks about the inspiration for the screenplay in an article about the “Rabbit Muster” and the blacklisting of a friend’s father during the fifties for being a communist. She also talks about the parallel of the scapegoating the communists and the rabbits by politicians to address different fears. Apparently no Australian trailer could be found – or any English-language trailer for that matter (the film went direct-to-video in the US from the short-lived Trylon Video) – so the Australian and American discs offer a German trailer (1:35) titled CELIA: EINE WELT ZERBRICHT (“A World Falls Apart”) that shockingly focuses on the drama rather than the horror. The film is also available in the UK on disc from Second Run, but that release does not port over the extras (although it does feature a different interview with Turner and an essay booklet). Also included are trailers for THE MONSTER CLUB, GRIZZLY, DAY OF THE ANIMALS, DEATH SHIP, THE UNSEEN and THE SURVIVOR. (Eric Cotenas)
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