Creepy families with murderous intentions have become a staple of horror cinema. Most recently directors like Rob Zombie have attempted to cash in on this long standing tradition with films like House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005), but long before Rob ever stood behind a camera other directors such as Jack Hill (Spider Baby; 1968), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; 1974), Pete Walker (Frightmare; 1974) and Wes Craven (The Hills Have Eyes; 1977) were plotting out similar scenarios with more worthwhile results.
One of the earliest and most interesting films in this tradition is Freddie Francis’ Girly aka Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1969). The plot of Girly is rather simple and involves a strange wealthy family that live on an isolated British estate. The family consists of Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and her two children Girly (Vanessa Howard) and Sonny (Howard Trevor) who are cared for by their doting Nanny (Pat Heywood). Girly and Sonny act like two naughty schoolchildren and Mumsy and Nanny enjoy babying them both. They sleep in cribs and play with toys as if they were infants, but the siblings are actually much older and enjoy spending their time luring adult men or new “friends” home to play games that involve torture and eventual death.
Girly isn’t one of Francis’ best looking films, but it is one of his funniest and most unusual movies. This blacker than black horror comedy offers plenty of uncomfortable laughs along with a few chills. The script by author Brian Comport is smart and surprising. It was based on a play called Happy Family written by Maisie Mosco in 1966. I don’t know much about the original play but with the script’s obvious swipes at the British upper-class and its timely take on the era’s sexual politics, Girly seems to distantly echo some of the social themes found in “kitchen sink dramas” that were popular in Britain throughout the ‘60s.
Before Freddie Francis started directing horror films he worked as a cinematographer on celebrated British dramas such as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). His unique talents helped give birth to the British New Wave and he was partially responsible for ushering in a new era of British cinema. Francis considered Girly to be one of his best films and I think it’s fascinating to view the movie as an extension of his previous work as a cinematographer. In some ways Girly could be seen as a seamless blend of Francis’ early beginnings as a member of the British New Wave combined with his bleak sense of humor and macabre sensibilities.
The family in Girly is clearly a parody of the British upper-class. In the films opening minutes we’re lead to believe that incest among family members is commonplace and as the film progresses they display crude racist humor as well as religious piety. They’re a confused and deeply disturbed bunch, but their male victims aren’t exactly likable either. The unsavory men that find themselves at the isolated estate are drawn there due to their sexual desire for Girly (Vanessa Howard) and it’s not hard to understand why.
Vanessa Howard is perfect as the young nymphet who lures men to their doom while wearing short skirts that are two or three sizes too small. Girly is easily the most interesting character in the movie and Howard is obviously having a blast playing her. Vanessa Howard was a beautiful and talented actress who appeared in some good British horror films such as The Blood Beast Terror (1968) and Corruption (1968). But Girly provided Howard with one of her best roles and she really makes the most of playing a murderous Lolita in the film.
Calling Freddie Francis’ Girly ahead of its time is an understatement. The film foreshadows countless inbreed family nightmares that followed it and scenes from the film must have inspired Stanley Kubrick during the making of The Shinning (1980). As influential and impressive as Girly is, the film owes some of its punch to Michael Powell’s horror classic Peeping Tom (1960). In Girly the character of Sonny makes great use of a camera to record some of the unsavory acts that he and his sister take part in. And it’s hard not to see a little bit of Bette Davis’ infamous Baby Jane as well as Carroll Baker’s Baby Doll in Vanessa Howard’s portrayal of Girly.
If rumors and DVD Aficionado are to be believed Girly is scheduled to be released on DVD by Code Red in March 2010. Anyone who is fond of horror comedies or enjoys Freddie Francis’ work will definitely want to give the film a look when it becomes more easily available.