Written and Directed by: Ann Turner
Starring: Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie, and Victoria Longley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The eerie, chilling tale of one child's terror.
It looks like I unwittingly went with a theme this week, as the past few movies have been noteworthy for their various titles; in the case of Seeds of Evil, its rebranding was an odious bit of misdirection, while no title could hope to gussy up The Touch of Satan. With Celia, no title harm was done until its U.S. distributor released it to video stores with the subtitle Child of Terror; when combined with a box art that promises a shotgun toting girl, this seems like an obvious attempt to set the film up as another ďcreepy kidĒ slash-fest, which isnít even close to accurately representing this bizarre, thoughtful coming-of-age tale that owes more to Truffaut than it does The Omen or Children of the Corn.
The titular Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart) is a peculiar girl all the same; while growing up in 1950s Australia, she witnesses the death of her beloved grandmother, an event that continues to haunt her for months as her life endures even more turmoil. While rarely discussed in the Superpowers-centric Cold War narrative, Australia endured its own Red Scare and bout with paranoia, and Celia finds herself unknowingly engulfed in it when her familyís past political affiliations are revealed. Along with a group of friends (some of whom have communist parents), she attempts to navigate this horrifying political landscape as only a child can: by resorting to an overactive imagination that includes monsters and the spirit of her dead grandmother.
Certainly a unique experience, Celia is that rare film that captures childhood anxiety and highlights its very literal horrors by subtly accentuating its more figurative ones. It does this by approaching the material as a child might experience it, as thereís a vague sense that something is off here. The film is particularly oblique in its treatment of Communism, as it rarely holds the viewerís hand, nor does it preach them through the conflict; instead, most of the film occurs from Celiaís point of view, so it operates on the notion that kids have a preternatural tendency to sniff out bullshit. When Celiaís father (Nicholas Edie) insists that she canít hang out with her friends because theyíre communists, she doesnít exactly buy it or go along with it, so the film hangs back and allows its audience to harshly judge a world we only wish were farcical. To say itís a critical look at this particular snapshot in history would be an understatement, particularly since itís also a scathing takedown of the more universal experience of growing up.
As you might have gathered, Celia is a dense film, full of bizarre flourishes and asides that make it difficult to read on a straight line. In this respect, itís also an accurate representation of childhood as an adult might recall it, as a series of half-remembered highlights and episodes. For example, one of the sustained subplots involves the countryís culling of its overpopulation of rabbits, which intersects with Celiaís desire to own her own pet; the two collide violently when the girl is eventually forced to comb through a government-instituted pen thatís rounded up all of the pets in the area. The image of Celia sifting through a grungy mass of mistreated and massacred animals and eventually emerging with the corpse of her own pet is a staggering image that captures an inevitable realization that the world is not a kind place. In the rabbit subplot, Ann Turner finds a multi-faceted element (itís obviously an allegory for the McCarthy-esque paranoia), but, in this particular moment, itís a stunning encapsulation of the filmís most obvious theme: growing up is sometimes a process of true terror that makes the metaphorical monsters-in-the-closet seem quaint.
Approaching the film from this perspective reveals the irony of the American subtitle, as Celia isnít a ďchild of terrorĒ as much as sheís a terrified child. Not only is she not a homicidally-inclined creepy kidósheís actually a victim of her various circumstances, including her familyís complicated history (her dead grandmother was a Communist, something her parents have attempted to outrun). If that werenít enough, she also has to endure other childhood rites, such as contentious group of kids prone to picking fights with Celia and her friends, who take to practicing voodoo and other bizarre rituals that reflect just how warped theyíve all become. Combine all of this with her grandmotherís death and an obsession with a dark storybook tale about violent creatures, and youíve got an adequate amount of nightmare fuel that propels Celia into some dark, disturbing places once itís done. Most disconcerting is its off-putting sense of detachment towards its subject; itíd be easy to paint a completely sympathetic portrait of a girl who has been twisted into committing some horrible deeds, but thereís a grim-faced sort of resignation to the filmís final couple of scenes thatís unsettling.
While Celia has evoked The 400 Blows for some critics, it reminded me more of Truffautís Small Change since itís more focused on an ensemble of young kids (the fact that the theater acts as a frequent hub for the film particularly echoes Small Change) and their interactions with a community at large. In many ways, it plays as a dark B-side for that film, which mixes both fanciful and heavy bildungsroman issues but does so in a mostly whimsical fashion thatís soaked in a longing nostalgia. Celia will have none of that, as itís more concerned with probing the seedy underbelly of childhood, and its fleeting bouts of whimsy are shaded with a perceptible weirdness. Calling Celia a macabre fairy tale isnít quite accurate since the film isnít overtly heightened; instead, it operates on a plane somewhere between history, reality, and the stuff of nightmares. Some might even take issue with considering it a horror movie since its more fantastical horror elements (the visions of the dead grandmother and the Hobya creatures) serve as metaphorical trimming for the filmís more grim horrors.
Celia is a remarkably assured debut for writer/director Turner, who has only directed three features since; thatís quite a shame since Celia would seemingly hail the arrival of a truly distinctive, daring voice from Down Under. Unlike many Aussie genre offerings, Celia isnít defined by the Ozploitation aesthetic, as itís silky, evocative, and moody. Itís also anchored by strong performances, with Smart providing a compelling center as Celia, a girl who is obviously strange without being too obviously strange like many horror tykes. Celia strikes me as the type of who would operate without suspicion until she were caught committing some sort of violent rampage, at which point everyone would suddenly realize they should have seen it coming (unlike, say, Damien, who was suspicious right from the damn womb). The film has thankfully been plucked from relative obscurity by Scorpion Releasing, who has made it the latest entry in their Katarinaís Nightmare Theater line. Featuring a solidly restored widescreen transfer, a serviceable mono track, and a small collection of extras (thereís an interview with Turner, a vintage featurette, and a trailer), the release is merely a solid one, but itís just nice to have this one available. Whereas the past few years have seen companies scraping the bottom of the barrel for tired retreads and variations on familiar themes, Celia presents a truly bizarre outlier in 80s horror cinema: a bold, introspective, and evocative take on childhood trauma thatís miles ahead of the decadeís standard slashery treatment of such material. Buy it!
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