With its decaying old English country house setting and a delicious offbeat ambience of ‘madness-in-the-family’-style macabre, Freddie Francis’ little-seen 1970 oddity “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” would seem to be the traditional “Old Dark House”-themed thriller with requisite Victorian Gothic flavouring, and a pre-cursor to the peculiarly British strain of grotesque psycho-thrillers that came later in the decade from the iconoclastic Pete Walker. Its stage play origins continue to shine through though, despite being filtered through the ensuing novella adaptation by Brian Comport; and for all its unique strangeness and occasional expansive forays into the outside world, the story’s single setting location renders it rather static and hermitical in character -- playing like a stagy version of a Harold Pinter piece in a British horror carve-up.
This strange tale of perverse family homicide takes place in a crumbling old manor house that looks like it has well gone to seed since the pre-war heyday of the aristocracy. Inside, among empty rooms of faded semi dilapidation and bundles of creepy-looking old china dolls, live the well-spoken but probably ruthless Mumsy (Ursula Howell) and her female number two Nanny (Pat Heywood). Mumsy runs the household and looks like a well-to-do ’40s matriarch, while perpetually jolly Nanny dresses in traditional Victorian nurse’s uniform and oversees the two ‘children’: Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) -- both of whom appear to be in their mid-twenties but nonetheless dress in old fashioned school uniform, converse in excitable baby talk and play childlike games; while at night sleeping in oversized cots surrounded by teddy bears and rag dolls in the nursery.
The two children go out to play and find new ‘friends’ in public parks, local zoos and playgrounds to bring back home for tea and games (we see them get flapped away by Horror veteran Michael Ripper playing a zoo keeper outside the lions’ enclosure), and during one of these escapades they come upon a vagrant drunk sleeping under a newspaper in the park who becomes their next playmate. His eventual fate is probably symptomatic of that of most of their other unwitting discoveries: he gets taken back for a tea-party of jelly and blancmange, dressed in a school uniform and sent out to play with Girly and Sonny in the sandpit. Unfortunately, ‘Soldier’ -- as they nickname him -- finds it hard to accept the rules of ’The Game’, is unwilling to wait until the timer has gone off which signifies that it’s ‘time for cake’, and gets a bit fresh with Girly (who, as a twenty-something female dressed in provocative school uniform, cannot help but conform to smutty British porno stereotypes), thus condemning him to ‘The Humpty Dumpty Game’: an unpleasantly violent end that results in him being ‘sent to the angels’.
This twisted and bizarre little world of antiquated pseudo-infantilism harks back nostalgically to the imagined idioms of the pre-War aristocratic family and various mythical conceptions of childhood. Mumsy revels in her bedtime reading of sentimental Charles Dickens’ quotations and Charles Kingsley’s Victorian childhood- worshipping moral fable The Water Babies; Nanny dotes on her two little angels. Both women, in fact, are totally complicit in the youngsters’ murderous games and play host to an unseen guest still being kept prisoner in room number 2. Having grown bored of homeless men and drunks, Sonny and Girly start casting their net wider and stumble upon ladies’ man Michael Bryant and his unfeasibly glamorous girlfriend Imogen Hassall, just as they’re leaving a house party at an unassuming suburban terrace. Both are drunk and easily tempted into child-like high jinx at the local park, where Sonny deliberately kills the girl by pushing her from the top of a slide and spirits the drunken Bryant back to the mansion -- he now thinking that the ‘accident’ was all his fault.
While the disheveled drunks and homeless people they normally bring home are content to go along with the games for the sake of free cake and a bath, the more formidable ‘New Friend’ at first puts up with the indignities and practical jokes that come of life as the occupant of room 5, out of fear of blackmail -- even when the corpse of his dead girlfriend turns up in his bed with a warning to obey the rules of The Game. However, New Friend has his eye on Girly, which provides another incentive to stick out the incessant games of Cowboys and Indians and sand-castle building. But this lothario is sensible enough to bide his time, and indeed it is Mumsy who first takes a shine to him, coaxing him back to her room for some clandestine fumblings which eventually arouse the interest of Girly herself (‘sometimes a growing girl gets an appetite’) when she accidentally stumbles upon the pair. New Friend realises that there is a great opportunity here for upsetting the apple cart and causing disunity among the family by playing the women off against each other. Soon he has bedded both Mumsy and Girly and caused the ire of a jealous Nanny, eventually having his way with her as well. Sonny is soon on to New Friend’s game, but makes the mistake of informing Girly that it is time to sent New Friend to the Angels, thus sparking inter-family warfare and a murderous rampage.
Directed with stately flair by cinematographer and British Horror veteran Freddie Francis, “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” has its fair share of memorable moments and quirky performances. Howard Trevor is strange and off-putting as Sonny when he’s pryingly filming sleeping vagrants on park benches with his super 8 mm camera, and zany when hunting his ‘prey’ Number 2 with a bow and arrow, while dressed as a Red Indian. Pat Heywood offers a great deal of flamboyantly grotesque mad fun as Nanny, whose deferential position as the number two female in the household is comically exemplified by having her sleep in the same room at the foot of Mumsy Ursula Howells’ bed. When she finally decides to off her former mistress via an acid-soaked needle through the neck, her exaggerated machinations are hilarious in the macabre way of those memorably found in “The League of Gentlemen“ or “Psychoville“ . The film was never a great success upon its initial release (indeed, it was believed lost until first a bleary full-screen print turned up on You Tube and now this vibrant widescreen transfer has appeared), but Francis always intended it to be seen as an out-and-out comedy, something that probably confused audiences at the time. In truth, the off-kilter quirkiness doesn't always quite translate into laugh-out-loud funny moments. Outright horror is kept to a minimum, although the fact that we never quite see the boiling head that’s indicated to be in the cooking pot on the stove at one point allows the disturbing idea to carry more weight, something Francis exploits by tilting the camera to almost show us the awful truth, but then cutting away at the last possible second. It is perhaps hard to believe that the middle-aged and unappetising Michael Bryant could cut a sexual swathe through all three female leads, including the unhinged but nonetheless virginal Girly, but by common consent the film really belongs to that latter predatory female character and is consequently a slave to Vanessa Howard’s compellingly psychotic performance, so much so that the film was re-titled simply “Girly” in the US.
Odeon Entertainment deliver the goods here once again: the transfer is, for the most part, superb, with only occasional blemishes or changes in colour tone. The mono audio is perfectly distinct and loud. The extras are confined to a US and Spanish trailer and a TV spot, along with an extensive photo gallery of stills and promotional materials. Plus there is also the US title sequence and a bunch of trailers for other cult Horror titles from Odeon Entertainment.
“Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly” is an oddball cult item that doesn't quite make it into the lost classic category; but its bizarre, completely outrageous take on the war of the sexes and the dysfunctional family is unique among a small selection of similarly outré offerings in this small sub-genre, and definitely has to be seen by anyone interested in the unusual side of cult British cinema of the seventies.