Saturday, October 20, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 19: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly

October 19th: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1969)

While the décor of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (simply Girly in the States) is unmistakably upper-class, it makes no attempt to be anything other than trashy English sleaze. I can dig on sleaze. While being sleazy in an obvious manner, MNSaG is also surprisingly cruel and sadistic a film, delighting in its own transgressions.

The film’s title names the four surviving members of an old-money clan, essentially closed off from the outside world. Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and Nanny (Par Heywood) don’t seem to leave the estate, and have created a sick game to occupy their days. Siblings Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (why didn’t Vanessa Howard’s career take off?) venture into town and round up drunks and club-hoppers, bringing them back to the house where they are drugged and imprisoned. The family subject their “new friends” to strange and complex games involving obscure rules and rituals. If a “friend” breaks too many rules—or becomes tiresome—they are chopped up and buried.

While we meet several unlucky drifters, in order to explain the family’s ongoing game, the only “friend” we spend any time with is Michael Bryant, playing “New Friend #2.” Bryant is a sort of non-entity in the film even though he’s given an excess of screen-time. He smartly realizes that he’s dead if he doesn’t play the game at least for a while. As he grows accustomed to the family dynamic, he discovers ways to upset the balance of power, turning Nanny against the family matron Mumsy, and Sonny against his sister--the object of his repressed desire--Girly. Bryant as New Friend #2 goes about bedding the women of the clan one by one—even ancient Nanny. These scenes aren’t played for titillation. In fact, there isn’t any nudity in the film. He simply sees several lonely women behind their whimsical/malevolent front, and takes an opportunity which he also finds pleasurable and natural, being a hip socialite. These scenes are played believably, and create the domino effect that may topped the house and allow “New Friend #2” to escape.

While Bryant may play the supposed antagonist, Howard and Trevor are the real life of the film—their dialog is a maze of snappy routines, children’s rhymes, extended riffs and spontaneous song. Its all very English, and very theatrical. No surprise then, MNSaG is based on a play. While over-the-top acting can kill the mood integral to this type of picture, here it really works. The structure of the film also points towards theater. The usual art of a typical horror film is nowhere to be seen. We spend almost the entire film with the villains, yet are never asked to like them.

The reason theatrical acting is appropriate is that the attitude of these characters is studied affect—they’re faking it. Being precious is part of the family put-on: they pretend to be a terribly average old-fashioned family as a sort of sick joke. Girly, for instance, has clearly been instructed to play the Lolita role, complete with short, short skirts and piles of porcelain dolls in her bedroom. When New Friend #2 seduces her, she reveals she is a virgin; this is the only scene in the entire film where one of the family lets their guard down. Whether or not this signifies anything is anyone’s guess. In a sense New Friend #2 is taking advantage of her the same way she has taken advantage of him. Every move in this film can be considered part of a grand strategy. There may be no lesson to learn here at all. New Friend #2 may play the game better than the makers of the rules themselves, but I’m not sure if any knowledge is gained from this observation. At no moment did I sympathize with his (intentionally) empty, playboy character. The film desires not to impart anything other than cheap thrills and a superficially cruel good time. Yet, there is a strange substance in its commitment and boldness.

Director Freddie Francis has had an interesting career. He began his directing career with Sci-Fi Horror film Day of the Triffids, then directed large handfuls of 60s and 70s English fright films, authored many an anthology-show segment, and topped off his career as David Lynch’s frequent D.P. After seeing this truly twisted piece of Euro-trash cinema, I’m quite interested in this era of his diverse career. Love the jazzy-psych soundtrack as well. While I have good things overall to say about this film, I doubt I’ll ever revisit it. So here it is, the classic cop-out in the face of indecision: this one is recommended for genre fans only.

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