Another treat from Odeon Entertainment again this month with the release of Freddie Francis' black comedy Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly. Made entirely on location in 1969, this marks a real change from Francis' usual Hammer and Amicus directing assignments. Based on the play Happy Families (which should give you a clue as to the subject matter) by Maisie Mosco, the film is a witty and dark satire and has been described as one of the great lost films of British horror cinema. I would certainly debate the latter claim because the film, whilst excessively Gothic in nature and with a touch of the Grand Guignol, is rather reticent when it comes to out and out horror. It's definitely an interesting curio and deserves to be rescued from obscurity but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that other cinematic treatise on the dysfunctional nuclear family, it ain't. Instead we get a mixture of the Addams family and The Old Dark House combined with some of the feverishness of Powell's Peeping Tom and some sequences that clearly influenced The Shining and Fatal Attraction.
The film describes a rule governed, if peculiar, household where Mumsy and Nanny look after the two children Sonny and Girly. It is a fatherless family and the film is more or less an examination of what happens to the nuclear family when there is no father figure, no mature male to impose particular values upon it. The sanctity of the family as a morally valuable unit is shown in contrast to the sexual freewheeling of the late 1960s and much of the film shows how one man, with enough intelligence and power, can attempt to unravel the matriarchal status quo.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly live in a crumbling Gothic pile and their family life has been reduced to what they refer to as 'The Game'. All have regressed to a child-like state within the Victorian conformity of their roles. Sonny and Girly may be 20 odd years old but they dress in school uniforms and abide by the rules of the house, their conversation at the level of the average nine year old. They sleep in a nursery filled with toys and dolls and in crib-like cots. Mumsy, the matriarch (played with delicious relish by Ursula Howells), watches over all and keeps an eye on her 'darling loves' with help from Nanny (a superb Pat Heywood). The two women sleep in the same room, with Nanny hilariously perched in a cot at the end of Mumsy's bed, both furiously engaged in a knitting contest. The balance of power between Mumsy and Nanny is already precarious with both women thinking they know best how to bring up Sonny and Girly and how best to interpret the rules. They are a set of archetypes that will only be disrupted when 'The Game' brings a 'new friend' to the house, a father figure that will create uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt. 'If you don't have rules, where are you?' states Mumsy imperiously, commenting no doubt on all that free love and individualism that the late 1960s ushered in. She's about to find out what happens when someone uses the rules against you.
There is a brooding sexualisation applied to all the characters within the film, imbuing the two 'children' with an erotic power which must have something to do with dressing adults up in school uniforms and infantilising them. Whilst Howard Trevor does his utmost to get this across as Sonny he never quite offers us the real sense of subversion that Vanessa Howard brings to her role as Girly. There is also a suggestion that the relationship is more than just brother and sister. The two children regularly leave the Gothic mansion in search of 'friends'. They usually bring back a man to the house who then has to undergo a rites of passage to ensure that he will conform to the rules and play nicely. The film opens with them bringing back a drunken tramp, whom they call 'soldier'. Nanny dishes up jelly and blancmange and they play games, much to the confusion of the poor man. However, when he clearly doesn't follow the rules and directs his desire to Mumsy and asks her to 'tuck him up' in bed, a game of Oranges And Lemons ('here comes the chopper to chop off your head') soon puts a stop to that.
When we discover that there are other men trapped in the house, we also see Sonny taking great pleasure, certainly a sexual gratification, in hunting down any man who tries to escape. When one of them makes a desperate attempt to scale the wall on the overgrown estate, Sonny shoots him with a bow and arrow and then films his death throes, playing back the images later to a delighted Mumsy and Nanny. When Sonny and Girly return with 'New Friend' (the always excellent Michael Bryant), after meeting him and his girlfriend coming out of party, they proceed to bump her off by pushing her off the top of a slide. Pinning the 'accident' on him, he feels obliged to stay and they use the death of his girlfriend as a lever to keep him in the house and make him abide by the bizarre prescriptions of Mumsy and Nanny. If he is obedient then he will live but if he is naughty then he'll be 'sent to the angels'. 'New friend' quickly realises that as a man he can use his sexuality and his desire for Girly to shatter the matriarchal power of the household. He sets out to seduce Girly and Mumsy. This leads to violent jealousy from Nanny and Sonny that results in Girly spectacularly murdering Sonny in one of the best scenes in the film.
Crushing him with a huge dressing table mirror she asks him - 'Do you know Tony Chestnut? Toe - knee - chest - NUT!' as each blow coincides with each word. 'Do you like four penny ones?' she screams, 'Well here's a four penny one!' as she hurls the mirror at him. Nanny's desires for 'New Friend' convince her to try and murder Mumsy but when Girly discovers that Nanny has also been playing with 'New Friend' out comes the axe and the body in woodpile. Look out for the scene where Mumsy reveals what's been cooking on the stove since Girly took the axe to Nanny. The cycle of violence, jealousy and mistrust doesn't quite give 'New Friend' all the power he thinks he has and the film ends on an uneasy note as all three protagonists, Mumsy (now reduced to being The Nanny), Girly (now the The Mumsy) and 'New Friend' conspire to bump each other off in another cycle of power games. 'So much for all the rules,' cries a distraught Mumsy at the end of the film.
It's a very funny film but it doesn't quite get to the deeper psychological elements of the characters. They are archetypes that aren't really imbued with anything of substance. It's clear the film is a treatise on power and sex, a thinly veiled commentary on the Victorian concept of family structure struggling to exist amidst great social upheaval, and the desire and need for a father figure, who remains constantly in flux or absent throughout the film until 'New Friend' attempts to take that role for himself. As a critique of the lessening moral and sexual standards of the late 1960s it also doesn't quite fulfill its potential because its upholding of the family is based on unhealthy repression. The whole crux of the film rests on desire. Mumsy, Nanny and Girly are required to desire 'New Friend' to make the cycle of petty jealousy and violence work. Michael Bryant, wonderful as he is, doesn't possess the glamour or the sexual power that the role requires.
Whether intentional or not he just comes across slightly too old and not attractive enough and because of that the seduction scenes really don't have the appeal they should. When 'New Friend' seduces Girly there is a rather unsavoury quality to what is actually a very powerful scene about loss of innocence. It doesn't quite work. The highlight of the film is certainly Vanessa Howard's role as Girly. She manages to oscillate between childish innocence, violence and anger with great aplomb and subtlety and it is an extremely confident performance of a psychopathic young woman trapped in a complex mesh of contradictory social and sexual mores by a doting mother who refuses to allow her to grow up into a well adjusted woman. Maladjusted, more like.
A bizarre, archly funny film that examines quintessentially British behaviour and mores and where the art of knitting, yes, knitting, is a core symbol of the balance of power. Francis' visual style is somewhat muted here but there are some striking moments where his visual sensitivity and composition pays off. An unusual British film, with a great sense of claustrophobia and unease, it's atypical for the period and Francis' at his riskiest.
The anamorphic HD transfer is grainy and damaged in places and I assume no restoration has been applied beyond the digital remastering. Colour is quite vibrant and the picture is sharp and with good contrast. The mono soundtrack is a little distorted in some places but dialogue is clear and crisp even though the pack claims it is a 'restored' soundtrack. The extras comprise of various trailers for the film, a TV spot, the alternate US title sequence (where it was called Girly) and a short gallery of stills, lobby cards and a press book. It's good to finally see it on DVD after a period when it was considered lost.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly - Digitally Remastered Special Edition (Odeon Entertainment DVD ODNF170 - Region 2 - Released 12th July 2010 - Cert 15)