In 1957, in suburban Adelaide, willful and odd nine-year-old Celia Carmichael (Rebecca Smart) receives mixed messages from her family, her school, her friends and the greater world around her. Celia is obsessed with a fairy tale book, The Hobyahs, and (in a precedent for Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK) imagines the blue, clawed, pointy-eared creatures impinging on her night-time world. One of the film’s master-strokes is that it catches the mix of terror and wish-fulfillment children relate to in horrifying fantasies—for Celia, the Hobyahs are threatening monsters, but she loves their story too much to give them up. Her granny (Margaret Ricketts) – a lifelong left-wing activist – has just died and her father Ray (Nicholas Eadie) lets slip that the dead woman’s beliefs made his own childhood difficult. When Ray burns his mother’s books, Celia is horrified at the betrayal. Celia befriends the children of the new neighbours, the Tanners. Pat (Mary-Anne Fahey), Celia’s mother, is struck by the appealing, open Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley), and Ray is frankly attracted to the woman. To complicates things, Steve Tanner (Alexander Hutchinson) is an argumentative communist in an era when politicians, teachers and parsons push a doctrinaire conservative line from pulpits and desks of authority. Celia’s cousin Stephanie (Amelia Frid), a spiteful princessy type whose father (William Zappa) is the local policeman, leads a junior mob to attack the Tanner kids on the grounds that they’re ‘dirty reds’.
Worried about the possibility his daughter will be as ostracised as he was if she spends too much time with the Tanners, Ray makes a deal with her that if she stops playing with her friends he’ll buy her the pet rabbit she has been agitating for. Ironically, in this place and time, rabbits are as despised and subject to persecution as communists. As shown in newsreels, proliferation of wild rabbits is devastating the country’s agriculture (NIGHT OF THE LEPUS is based on Australian Russell Braddon’s satirical novel Year of the Angry Rabbit, which was informed by these times, and William F. Claxton’s ridiculous film opens with startling footage of this real-life plague). Among the measures taken against the rabbits is a government-decreed round-up of domestic pet bunnies, who are removed to a pen in the zoo. In an excruciating sequence, Stephanie brands a cross on Celia’s pet, Murgatroyd, ‘so the government will know to take him’, escalating a conflict adults will never understand. Celia clings to her pet with fierce devotion and Pat – irritated by her husband’s obvious designs on Alice, and the fact that he has been instrumental in Steve losing his job – finally draws a line, supporting her daughter against her brother, who is pressured at home because Stephanie has had to surrender her own pampered pet. The forces of authority remove Murgatroyd, and even an attempt to reverse the law after a mass movement of harassed parents turns out badly for the poor animal and his owner. This provokes Celia even further into savagery. Inspired by a cinema trip to see Jean Yarbrough’s KING OF THE ZOMBIES, she takes up voodoo and manufactures dolls for pin-sticking of her enemies, including her own father (though it takes extreme provocation for her to deploy the pin), then stripes her face with lipstick war paint and reaches for a shotgun.
The later stages of the film run to horrific incidents which encourage comparisons between Celia and the similarly-pigtailed Patty McCormick in THE BAD SEED and vaguely justified a befuddled US distributor in retitling the film CELIA: CHILD OF TERROR in an attempt to sell it as a very late entry in the ‘demonic kid’ cycle of the 1970s (it would make an interesting co-feature with the likes of Robert Voskanian’s THE CHILD or Eddy Matalon’s CATHY’S CURSE). But writer-director Ann Turner and child actress Smart never take the easy way out with the protagonist – she’s difficult and disturbed from the outset, but has a child’s sense of the hideous unfairness of the adult world. If she becomes a monster of cruelty by the end it’s because of the contradictory examples she’s been given. Yet, Turner empathises with and gives credit to her parents too—they care about Celia, and try hard to support and protect her even when she makes it impossible. And there’s a world away from adult supervision, in a surreally blasted and dangerous quarry where wars are fought and rituals (including executions) are conducted, that mimics the best and worst of the grown-up world.
Turner made her feature debut with CELIA, which was critically acclaimed and has lingered in the memory of those who saw it; in Australia, it’s a minor official classic film about childhood, perhaps on a par with Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY in the US or Ken Loach’s KES in the UK. Not as prolific or internationally-known as fellow antipodean Jane Campion, with whom she shares a certain sensibility, Turner has made other interesting films: DALLAS DOLL (1994), with Sandra Bernhard, HAMMERS OVER THE ANVIL (1994), with Charlotte Rampling and Russell Crowe, and the undervalued psycho-thriller IRRESISTIBLE (2006), with Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and a terrifying Emily Blunt. An adult Smart recently cropped up in SAVAGES CROSSING (2011), a thriller cast with names from ‘70s and ‘80s Australian genre and art cinema (Chris Haywood, John Jarratt, Angela Punch McGregor). CELIA is extraordinarily complex and merits multiple viewings. The fact that it’s so hard to categorise is one of its most appealing factors. A psychological study of children and parents and a period political piece, it’s an equally valid and interesting exercise to approach it for its connections with horror cinema.