Before Rob Zombie’s lackluster attempts to revitalize the horror film sub-genre of “killer families” with the likes of HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003) and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), audiences had to go back thirty years or so in order to thrill to the exploits of murderous kin with fare such as Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), Pete Walker’s FRIGHTMARE (1974), Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), and the film that kick-started the cycle, Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY (1968).
One year after Hill’s seminal tale of a demented American family entertained audiences stateside, British critics thrilled to the equally off-the-wall MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY. The film concerns the activities of a dysfunctional family consisting of Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), and regressive siblings Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) who enjoy luring adults, that the family dub “new friends”, back to their sprawling estate to partake in perverse children’s games. The fact that the new houseguests are male (women, it would appear, are murdered before they arrive), and that the family lack a father figure suggests that the primary purpose of the games is to find a suitable candidate to fulfil the masculine duties for which Sonny is unsuited. With the arrival of their latest “new friend” (Michael Bryant) comes his own brand of games; sexual dalliances with Mumsy and Girly. However, when his activities are exposed family jealousies rise to the fore and the inevitable carnage ensues.
In a departure from directing fantastical monster-driven features that include THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1963), THE SKULL (1965), DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968), and TROG (1969), Freddie Francis dispenses with the gore-laden death scenes that were a staple of his latter work and, instead, turns to black comedic horror, more in keeping with Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY. The two films share a penchant for the gothic; both are set in decaying ancestral mansions that serve as home to psychotic siblings that act regressively; one of whom is a post-adolescent daughter whose violent demeanour underpins a dark sexuality.
Stylistically, both directors employ the use of animals as framing devices and utilise eerie, exterior tracking shots of a real Gothic mansion and its grounds. David Muir’s rich cinematography for MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY captures the sprawling architecture of the Windsor Thameside manor, Oakley Court, beautifully. The interior set design is in keeping with the film’s fractured characters; old porcelain dolls and toys vie for camera space with overgrown terraces, dusty Victorian furnishings, and the implements of murder. Old grey rooms and the drab grey and blue clothes of the adults contrast with red curtains and the red blazers of the children. The colours of the visuals throughout foreshadow events. For instance, red is used as a metaphor for sex and death. The red painted railings of the park and playground slide forewarn of murder, the red blazers worn by Sonny and Girly not only mark them down as killers but also as sexual deviates. It is not until their new adult friend dons a red blazer that he is able to lure both Mumsy and Girly into bed. Red snooker balls strike the heads of dolls and teddy bears that have been crudely positioned in the table’s cushion pockets and this thematic image is another that is carried throughout the film. Potential victims are buried from the neck down in sandpits, dolls have their heads pulled off, the red heads of jack-in boxes emerge from unlikely places, all of which give clues to the gruesome fate that awaits various characters.
Best of all is the striking performance of Vanessa Howard (aged just twenty one at the time of filming) who combines the deranged excesses of a mature Bette Davis from WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) with the seductive promiscuity displayed by Carroll Baker in BABY DOLL (1956) and, to a lesser extent, Sue Lyon in LOLITA (1962). It should be noted that BABY DOLL also had its titular character dress in children’s clothes, sleep in a child’s cot and suck her thumb in an enticing manner. Francis, too, may have been inspired by scenes in BABY DOLL involving yet another decaying manor house and acts of voyeurism through various peepholes.
Unlike Davis and Baker, whose performances elicited nominations for Academy Awards, Vanessa Howard had to be content with the strings of a cult following, something she shares with the film itself. Previously only available in obscure pirated form of varying quality, Odeon Entertainment present this classic slice of British cinema in an improved transfer from an NTSC source, which means that the colours still appear muted, though this DVD is a vast improvement on previous illicit versions.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Freddie Francis
English language/ UK / 1969 / 102 Mins / Colour / Rated 15
Region 2 / PAL
An Odeon Entertainment DVD release
Region 0 DVD (UK)
Release date July 12th, 2010
MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY