Judge Daryl Loomis and his dog have a deal: she finally catches one of the rabbits in the backyard, we split it fifty-fifty.
Swear on my living heart, blood will never part.
Imports have always had it tough in the United States, especially when they don't fall into easily identifiable categories. This was especially true during the VHS era, before one could easily look online and see what a movie is actually about, when distributors were left with a title and a box cover to drive rentals. Rarely has this been truer than the case of Celia: Child of Terror.
Simply called Celia in its native Australia, it was given the "Child of Terror" subtitle by US distributors with a box cover featuring a warpainted young girl brandishing a shotgun and marketed as a horror movie. Celia is only a horror movie in the loosest sense. Instead, it's an extremely well-crafted drama about the perils of growing up in a conflicted and confusing world, and it's an utter shame that it's so obscure.
Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart, Blackrunners) is a quiet little girl whose grandmother just died. She's about to turn nine and all she wants for her birthday is a cute bunny to call her own. Her father (Nicholas Eadie, Return to Snowy River) refuses, though, thinking they're vermin, so Celia consoles herself by making friends with the Tanner family, who just moved in next door. Her dad soon finds out that they're Communists, however, so makes a deal with Celia: he'll buy her that stupid rabbit if she stops spending time with the Tanners. She agrees, but when the government calls for the impoundment of all pet rabbits, Celia must realize some hard lessons about life.
Celia may not exactly be horror, but it has elements of the genre. They come out in the way that the young title character experiences her active fantasy world, with imagined monsters keeping her awake at night. That and the overall feeling of dread are the only good reasons it was ever placed in the genre, so don't go in expecting more than that. Its closest analog that viewers have more likely seen is The Reflecting Skin, another excellent movie that has been misplaced within the genre.
Celia doesn't need those elements to work and is more disturbing without them. The way that director Ann Turner (Hammers over the Anvil) portrays the stark realities of growing up in mid-1950s Australia is very sad and decidedly uncomfortable, but it all feels very real. Celia, quiet but outgoing, spends most of the movie grieving, with only a few moments of genuine happiness. Even when she's elated at getting her rabbit, it comes at a heavy price. By the time she's forced to give it up and grieve some more, the friends she had to leave behind have moved after being outed for their political affiliation. Then, it just goes downhill.
Turner took elements of the story from her own childhood, giving the sense of realism even more punch, but what really drives it home is the lead performance from Rebecca Smart. Truly, it's one of the best child performances that I've ever seen, nuanced and explosive and completely believable. Nicholas Eadie is also quite good as character who can't decide whether he loves his daughter more than he hates communism. Really, he's just a barely closeted scumbag, making unfair bargains with his daughter while hypocritically trying to paw Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley, Dallas Doll), whose beauty and vivacity supersede her politics, at least so long as she complies with his advances.
Celia is a very fine movie through and through. The only missteps are the horror parts, but they are so brief and inconsequential to the story that they're easy to forgive. With so much talent both in front and behind the camera, plus a truly unnerving story, it's a movie that deserves a whole lot more recognition than it has received. I, for one, am very happy to have it in my collection and, while it's not always easy to watch, I can easily recommend the film to anyone.
Celia: Child of Terror arrives on DVD from Scorpion Releasing as part of the "Katrina's Nightmare Theater" series with a typically excellent release. We received a screener for review, but it looks pretty good nonetheless. The 1.85:1 image is strong, with a good transfer and a nice, natural grain structure. There are a few instances of damage to the print, but it's not terribly distracting and the colors are fairly accurate. The stereo sound mix isn't anything special, but there's no background noise and the dialog is always clear.
The extras are unfortunately slight, though. Aside from the bumpers with Katarina Leigh Waters, there are only two interviews and the German trailer on the disc. The first is a short archival interview with Turner from a television show and the second is a little longer, about ten minutes, but is audio only. With the quality and obscurity of the film, a more robust slate would have been appreciated, especially with what has appeared on other releases in the series, but the disc is still worth it.
Celia is one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in some time. It may not deliver on the terror that the cover promises, but as much of a horror fan as I am, this is much better. It's unnerving, uncomfortable, and features some of the best child acting out there. It's a shame that it's been unknown in the woods for so long, but even if it's being mismarketed in the same way it always has in this country, hopefully this release will help it get some of the notoriety it deserves.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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