Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly – UK, 1969

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Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly – released as Girly in North America – is a 1969 British horror film, directed by Freddie Francis.

The film stars Vanessa Howard (What Became of Jack and Jill?, Corruption), Michael Bryant (Torture Garden, The Stone Tape), Ursula Howells (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden), Pat Heywood (10 Rillington Place, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) and Howard Trevor.

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In a large mansion in the secluded British countryside live a most peculiar family – Mumsy (Howells), Nanny (Heywood), Sonny (Trevor) and Girly (Howard). Despite their titles, it remains unclear throughout the film as to whether any of them are actually related to each other.  They live their lives in blissful, fantasy contentment, obeying their own rules and playing ‘the game’, their strange, dangerous blueprint for life (and death).

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Despite being in their late teens (Howard was 22 at the time of filming), Girly and Sonny wear school uniform and talk and behave like 5 or 6 year olds; this is weird enough but is as odds with the extremely sexual, predatory instincts displayed by ultra-nymphet, Girly.

When we meet Girly and Sonny they are in the middle of one of their regular games, here luring a tramp back to their lair with the promise of food; his attempts at leaving their childish fun are met with an axe-wielding finale to ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Heading to town, they see a male prostitute with one of his clients and Girly gets to work using her charms to convince the pair to join her and Sonny back at their house.

However, on the way, they detour to a playground and having plied the man with drink, kill the woman (played by Imogen Hassall from When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) by throwing her off a large slide. The following morning, back at their house, they convince the man, now dubbed ‘New Friend’ (Bryant) that he murdered her.

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We are introduced to Mumsy (Howells) and Nanny (Heywood) who we quickly learn are equally barking and are cut from a similarly depraved cloth as the youngsters. Their bizarre dinnertime rituals and games spook New Friend and it is made clear to him that any attempts at escape will see him being ‘sent to the angels’, just like previous ‘guests’.

At this point the roles in the house are made a little clearer, though they remain deliberately vague throughout; Sonny is somewhat wishy-washy, content to play sword-fighting games and cowboys and Indians but happy just behaving in an overly mischievous way.

Mumsy is completely entrenched in the rules and ‘the game’ and oversees the members of the household with quiet authority, though another side to her personality soon rears its head. Nanny is rather more dottyinsisting everything is done in the proper way and with a good deal of ‘tut-tutting’. It is Girly who really pulls the strings though, a deeply sadistic streak coupled with barely-contained sexuality.

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New Friend isn’t as daft as previous guests. He realises the key to his escape is to play along with The Game and drive a wedge through their relationship. As Mumsy makes sexual advances to him, he accepts and also makes a move on Girly, the knock-on effect being jealousy throughout the household.

Sonny, alarmed, calls for him to ‘be sent to the angels’, the incumbent resident of room 5 already heading that way. His rhetoric is too much for Girly who takes her frustration out on Sonny with a brutal game of ‘Tony Chestnut’ – you’ll soon pick up the rules. Mumsy seems unconcerned and declares Sonny as naughty. Nanny meanwhile is feeling a little left out, though her attempts at murdering Mumsy with poisoned needles are interrupted.

With the three women now in competition for one man, Girly decides to improve her odds by murdering Nanny (again, with an axe) and boiling her head. When Girly and Mumsy decide the best outcome would be for them to both split their week between sleeping with New Friend on alternate days, it only remains for the object of their affections to cast the deciding vote.

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Director Francis already had a rich history of success in horror films both as a director (Dracula has Risen from the Grave and The Evil of Frankenstein to name but two) and a cinematographer (Night Must Fall, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger) but with Girly, insisted on being given complete artistic control.

This started with a film essentially being built around the location, Oakley Court, a Victorian gothic-style country house, situated next to Bray Studios. The house had previously been used in many Hammer productions and was later seen in films such as Rocky Horror Picture Show. Brian Comport (The Fiend, The Asphyx) was given the task of writing the screenplay and used Maisie Mosco’s play The Happy Family as its foundation, though this extended little further than a strange, nuclear family involving themselves in sexual games.

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The film did absolutely nothing in Britain, something which, combined with the failure of other films at the box-office, led to Howard shunning the industry, which will be forever everyone’s loss. Her performance is incendiary, coquettish, malevolent and completely believable, it’s one of the great British screen performances of the 1960’s. Trevor, who never appeared on screen again, is the only weak link in the acting stakes, though there is scarcely any room on set for any more powerhouse performances.

The relationship between the characters is never explained, unthinkable in a film nowadays. Early scenes see Howard sucking Trevor’s fingers suggestively. When Bryant has sex with Howard we are initially led to think that he has taken her virginity but an oddly alarming declaration that he is ‘bloody naive’ brings into question the whole household’s motives; are they all crazy, living in their own dream world or are they all sadists, living under an umbrella of innocence?

Sonny films the family’s exploits for them all to re-watch, an act which is shown subtly but again reveals a little more about their world. The film fared better in America where emphasis was placed on Howard’s sex appeal though by this stage she had already quit the business.

Lost for years (so lost that despite it being Francis’s favourite of his films, the BFI were unable to feature it in a tribute). Although Salvation hoped to release it in the early 1990’s, Francis’s death meant the film again lay in the doldrums. Fully forty years after its release, the film finally found a home on DVD. It retains all its powers to shock and is one of the most disturbing, challenging and provocative films of the 1960’s. In directorial terms, it is difficult to imagine a braver filmmaker at his peak.

Daz Lawrence, Horrorpedia

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