Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970)

‘Nasty Nanny is no good! Chop her up for fire wood! When she's dead, boil her head, make it into gingerbread!’

A crazy, fatherless British family lures men to their neo-Gothic mansion and forces them to participate in an elaborate role-playing game in which they act out their own perverted workings of the perfect family. Those who refuse or attempt escape are ritualistically murdered. A fair summary, but there’s more disturbing shit-a-lurking underneath.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly forms the shaky bridge between the 1960s and the 1970s. There’s the carefree camp comedy of the 60s and the high ridicule of family living, as evidenced in the high horror of Joe Orton’s domestic scenes. But then there’s something far more uncomfortable, a sense that the joke isn’t funny at all. Stark horror, sadness and a deathly lack of irony are the only outcomes. On the one hand we have the comedy of the family unit that stopped functioning sometime after the Second World War, the sort that we best see expressed in the farce of the period, and in films like those by Richard Lester. On the other hand we have a brutality that never winces as it hacks and hacks again at the fabric of all that even the 1960s saw as safe.

Horror did take a turn for the worse in the early 1970s, and although it isn’t nearly the gorefest of many other films, Girly takes particular pleasure in ruining the safe set up of home.

Yes, Joe Orton, the Beatles and Mike Nichols brought sex into the merry play of the stable family, but always with a purpose and a deftness that made horror characters of the players without anybody getting physically hurt. As the curtain raised on 1970 so did the axe — and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Mark of the Devil (both 1970) hurt with equal measure, with no remorse and a rather sudden turn of shock.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly, directed by Freddie Francis, features an absurdly depraved English family living in a secluded manor house. On the surface they appear a little odd. The children are too old for the junior school uniforms they wear and they are slightly incestuous, and their names are synonymous with their roles within the family: Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor), and Girly (Vanessa Howard).

It was Vanessa Howard who became the film’s major selling point, and although the movie could have done better business in Britain, the film’s owners Cinerama Releasing Corporation took cold feet due to a backlash against screen indecency, and so release was limited. I don’t know if this was a good experience for Vanessa Howard in general, and it must be difficult being young and wanting to act, and yet so good-looking that only a certain type of role arises.

In America, under the simple title Girly, Girly Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly fared a little better, but it was still sold by Vanessa Howard — or rather an imitation of her, in the poster at least.  More effort was made to market Girly in America with some much more overtly horror style marketing. At least this directed the film towards a straight up horror audience, offering sex and slashing, rather than a parody of nuclear family life. What you get instead is a much more understandable image, a busty young girl (not Vanessa Howard) wearing a cutoff skirt and clutching a doll in one hand and a bloody axe in the other.

I’m looking at the poster just now and Vanessa Howard doesn’t wear a dress like that in the film, never goes barefoot, doesn’t hold a toy like that, and certainly doesn’t have the breasts as imagined in this male-driving poster. Niether, by the way, does the house in the poster bear a resemblance to the house in Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly, and just for measure the grass in the film isn’t that long either — and neither is it misty in the movie.

Next have a look at the two title shots and see if you can spot the more sensational marketing effort.

Then look at these from the USA trailer, which promises a whole lot more than is delivered, but will satisfy anyway, because men in particular are always going to want to see more, even if they end up only thinking that they have.

Some folks have pointed to Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly as a possible influence on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, for a scene in which Nanny hacks through the panel of a door with an axe, exposing her face to the room's occupant. It’s hard to say this for sure, though if it is a Kubrick rip-off or a homage, it’s certainly a small one.

What is sure in the script is a dig at the family unit, after its shattering by the sort of free love that Girly offers on her trips out and about. The victims don’t know it to the last, but Girly is poison — as sex is poison — and it’s sex that sucks in the male victims, and causes their paralysis in the ancient family setup they are ripping apart there in the Old English Countryside.

Additional to the main starring roles, spotters will enjoy Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper and Imogen Hassall, whose cleavage appears in several of the lesser well-known films of the era. Imogen Hassall's life in paralleled the 1960s — the freedoms and excesses and something brief and brilliant — and though born in 1942, she committed suicide in 1980.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly isn’t one of Freddie Francis’ best films, and time took its toll in delivering one verdict at least — although available in the US on VHS, organisers of a Freddie Francis film festival in 2004 were unable to turn up a print or VHS copy and had to make do without, until a re-master appeared in 2006.

It’s quite easy to lose interest in Girly at times. The small incestuous suggestion at the start between Vanessa Howard and Howard Trevor isn’t really brought any further, so it remains as a straightforward manipulation and I’m not sure how we are supposed to know that Michael Bryant’s character is a male prostitute.

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly fell foul of censors due to the brief incestuous suggestion, and so disappeared for decades, until resurfacing inly around 2010. It’s not so bad that you should avoid it, but it tries a little hard to present the dysfunctional family and feels a little clumsily put together, the basic premise being sick family lures unsuspecting males back to neo-Gothic mansion for murder etc.

As you might imagine with this MO, Girly did OK in VHS when its big moment came in the 1980s, but by then, independent cinema really knew how to wield an axe with terror, so Girly continued to fizzle away in its own backwater.