“ Genre: Horror / Theatrical Release: 1970 / Director: Freddie Francis / Actors: Ursula Howells, Pat Heywood, Howard Trevor, Vanessa Howard... / DVD Released 2010-07-12 by Odeon Entertainment „
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A review of the Odeon DVD, currently £9 on amazon (it's fairly new; it'll come down in price in a few months, I expect.)
Freddie Francis was an acclaimed and successful cinematographer (he won two Oscars). He also directed a whole lot if cheap British horror movies in the 60s and 70s. None of them are particularly good - they're generally the Hammer horrors no one remembers or those anthology movies for Amicus. In interviews, Francis was disdainful of the horror films he made, which is fair enough although it makes you wonder why he made them in the first place. But the one film he expressed a lot of fondness for was Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1969), a peculiar little gothic horror that vanished without a trace on release and became almost a lost film over the years. Finally someone has tracked down a print and released the thing on DVD.
The four title characters - mother, nanny, two children - live in a big, ramshackle mansion, somewhere near London. Although fully grown, Sonny and Girly behave like children, constantly playing games and chanting nursery rhymes. Mumsy and Nanny collaborate in this weird lifestyle, pretending their little darlings are still genuinely young. They entice various 'new friends' into their lair - tramps, drunkards - and confuse them with baffling rules, precocious sexuality and crazy games. Then they kill them. Their weird little serial killer family is interrupted by the latest new friend, who proves more adaptable than his predecessors, and soon starts seducing his way to salvation.
This was based on a play, and is an odd but effective British horror movie that doesn't rely on monsters, twist endings or even gore and sex. It's a well-written character drama about infantile murderers (it's a little bit like the modern Greek arthouse movie Dogtooth, but less funny and explicit). The interloper coming in to shake up an odd family is a fairly well-worn plot device, and this story probably borrows it from Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, which also deals with murder and seduction and was a stage hit at the time.
It's extremely well acted, which is unusual for old horror. Michael Byrne is nicely sardonic as New Friend, although he arguably lacks the sex appeal he needs to convincingly turn Mumsy, Nanny and Girly against one another. The 'children' are both excellent, annoying and scary in equal measure (short-skirted Vanessa Howard as Girly seemed to be the focus of most of the films' publicity). Urusula Howells is very good as Mumsy, a nice combination of languorous sexuality and posh maternalism. My favourite was Pat Heywood as Nanny, who's like a homicidal Nursey from Blackadder. The rest of the cast is small, but contains a few faces familiar to horror fans.
The film is very nicely shot, with especially vibrant colours, and having a better-than-usual script does seem to have brought out the best in the director. He's got a lot to work with, but doesn't ramp up the grotesquery; by playing it more as a character drama it makes the horror a little bit weirder and more unsettling. There's very little onscreen violence, no blood, and no nudity - I'm not entirely sure why this needs a 15 rating, I'd have thought a 12 would have served well enough.
It's all filmed on location, and the main location, the mansion, is excellent. Shabby and rundown, but impressive at the same time, it's perfect for the story. The design is, in its way, as appropriate as that for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except that instead of body parts here we have lots and lots of old toys and Victoriana. Mumsy's idealised notions about how children should behave seem to have come from Dickens or Charles Kingsley. She's obviously been the main instigator of their weird lifestyle, and although Nanny is complicit, it's not entirely clear if the children are really spiteful but naive, or whether they're just playing along because they enjoy the killing. Either way, the story is clever without being annoying, with grotesque comedy very much to the fore.
The music is heavily orchestral, usually playing variations on nursery rhymes. At times this does make it sound a bit like a Carry On film, but at other times it weirdly resembles Stravinsky, and while at first it seems too heavy and unsubtle, as the film progresses and becomes stranger, the music becomes more appropriate.
The picture quality is good - it looks a bit muddy, but I think that's just the way it was shot. But frankly it's great that they released this at all. There's a trailer, a Spanish trailer (which isn't really any different, but has a Spanish voiceover) and a slightly different version of the opening titles (the film was released as 'Girly' in America, where Vanessa Howard's legs were the main selling point). Other than that there's a rather pointless image gallery.
This is a better film than I expected - lost cult classics tend to be a bit mundane when you actually get to see them. It's certainly Freddie Francis's best horror film, and is clever enough and well enough acted to never quite lose your interest.