Monday, February 21, 2022

Childhood IS Terrifying

While this website might have been born out of a passion for killer doll-based horror, I think I'm finally ready to accept that thirteen years into this blogging thing, homicidal children just might have clawed their way to the top of my heart, likely by slicing some porcelain achilles heels with tiny kid-sized scalpels. Whether it was Esther the Orphan's perfect curls or the Bloody Birthday trio's wacky antics, somewhere over the last decade, I've come to crave more monster youths than possessed toys.

Granted, part of that might be due to the requirements of both subgenres: anyone can shake a plaything around and call it a villain, but coaxing an actual performance out of a young actor is generally a far more challenging feat.

Now don't worry: as is tradition, we will indeed have ONE killer doll movie during February's Shortening. But today, today is for the kids.

Quick Plot: In 1957 suburban Australia, Celia Carmichael (the incredible Rebecca Smart) starts her ninth birthday with a batch of life-changing events: the death of her beloved, Communist-sympathizing grandmother, the arrival of the Tanners next door, and finally, the gift of her chunky pet rabbit Murgatroyd. 

If you're thinking "none of that sounds very horror genre-related", you'd be right, so let's address the elephant in the outback first: though she may rock perfect Rhoda Penmark braids, Celia is no bad seed. Much like Paperhouse (a movie that tonally feels very close), Celia is more whimsical childhood drama than horror, lightly filled with some fantastical elements tied to our title character's favorite, incredibly disturbing fairy tale. Shudder isn't really the natural place for this to stream, but you know what? I'm not complaining.

Long out of print (seemingly like most of writer/director Ann Turner's work), Celia is a special, special little film that deeply understands and achingly translates what it means to grow up. Honestly, that IS terrifying.

Celia is a sensitive, assertive kid, much to the chagrin of her bullish dad and subservient mom. She's instantly drawn to the warmth of Alice Tanner, the matriarch of her more liberal neighbors, whose own Communist ties sit poorly with Mr. Carmichael (though Alice's pretty face certainly doesn't). Between Australia's red scare and pet rabbit persecution, all the things that seem to bring Celia joy are threatened at once. It's heartbreaking.

So Celia copes with her fantasies. There's the recurring dreams of the dreaded Hobyah, goblin-like creatures lifted from Celia's favorite schoolbook (and yes, as the great documentary Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched suggests, The Babadook definitely took note). An abandoned, terribly unsafe rock quarry becomes a playground for Celia and the Tanner kids, occasionally invaded by her snotty cousin with dire consequences. Celia deals with such slights the way many a spirited child might: by setting ritualistic bonfires and burning effigies of her enemies with the hopes that it will translate to real-world payback.

And eventually, it does.

I won't spoil Celia, which, despite being a fairly free-wielding character study, does indeed throw us a twist in the fifth act. But yes, at a certain point, something very big happens, and I suppose it can technically nudge Celia into the genre category (particularly with the VERY final scene, that almost reads like the preface to a glorious queen bee origin story). Celia is apparently often compared to The 400 Blows in how it taps into a child's perspective, but my mind went straight to the champion of the 2020 Shortening: Poison for the Fairies. Both films understand that to be a little girl means feeling in a very big way, that the world is as scary as it is exciting, and everything that threatens what you love is a danger the bravest must face head-on. 

High Points
There's so much to love about Celia, but an area that really elevates the film is the nuance that Turner brings to Celia's parents. Yes, her father is a brutish jerk, but he does indeed love his daughter (even if, like so many fathers, he'll never understand her). 

Low Points
I'm going back and forth on the rather shocking plot twist towards the very end, and while it sits better with time, I still think it doesn't quite get the room to breathe that it probably needs

Lessons Learned
In a world before ergonomic Jansports, the baby boomer generation of Australia likely experienced early onset back problems

Animals In Peril Alert
Bad things happen to adorable bunny rabbits and kids have to deal with the outcome and I'm saying this now so you're well-prepared because IT'S TERRIBLY UPSETTING AND YOU'VE BEEN WARNED

Rabbit funerals aside, Celia is a gem of a film. It's by no means an easy watch (nor really a genre film) but it's so worth the effort when you're ready for a heavy dose of powerful childhood anxiety. 

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