DIRECTED BY: Freddie Francis
FEATURING: Ursula Howells, Vanessa Howard, Michael Bryant
PLOT: The four titular characters form a dysfunctional family living in a large, isolated house amidst rambling grounds. Sonny and Girly regularly venture out to bring back lonely, homeless men as “friends” for the family. Each friend’s well being depends on his willingness to abide by the family’s bizarre rules and games. The latest friend adapts only too well, turning the family’s rules against them and revealing the sexual frustrations and power games simmering just below the surface gloss of nursery rhymes and tea parties.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It just isn’t weird enough. Whether you consider it weird at all probably depends on whether you grew up with this brand of self conscious black humour. The British are traditionally fond of it, for reason’s best known to ourselves. Murderous, nonsense-prattling dysfunctional families are as mother’s milk to us, so this really didn’t seem all that odd to me. Pared down to basics this is a tale of four maladjusted people, who may or may not be related, who seem to be independently wealthy and are isolated from society. They have formed a family unit and devised a set of perverse games and rules to pass the time. Periodically they lure in a lonely outsider, subject him to their games and when he inevitably breaks a rule, they kill him and film the proceedings. Certainly it’s a little off kilter, but in the company of the Premier League weirdness on this site it just doesn’t measure up.
COMMENTS: If you are charmed by the idea of adults chattering out nonsense in sing song voices and constantly referring to themselves in the third person then I’ve got good news for you… this film has it in spades! I’m not entranced by it, so the first ten minutes were touch and go. A brief cameo by character stalwart Michael Ripper was enough to distract me, though, and I gradually found myself becoming interested in what was developing. The first fifteen minutes or so of the film are an introduction to the games and rules. Sonny and Girly are out at the crack of dawn scouting out park benches and ferreting under newspapers in their search for a New Friend. The last Friend has apparently proven himself unsatisfactory and has been confined to quarters. We don’t see him until much later, when he gets to star in his own snuff film.
They find a hopeless case called Soldier, and lure him back to their home with a bottle of booze and Girly’s ultra-miniskirt. Once there he blows the gig almost immediately by showing himself to be vulgar, ill-spoken, drunk, lecherous, and way too fond of corduroy. The family dispatches him very quickly, he doesn’t even make it to bed time; though he does get a toasted tea cake, so the day isn’t a complete wash out.
The sun has barely had time to set and Sonny and Girly are on the prowl again. They light upon a new candidate for friendship stumbling out of a party on the arm of his wealthy girlfriend. He is clearly drunk, clearly a moocher and clearly homes in on Girly the moment he sees her. Taking the couple to a deserted playground gives Sonny and his sister the opportunity to kill the girlfriend and convince New Friend that he was to blame. Terrified of being found, out he goes home with them and becomes embroiled in their games. Once sober he very quickly learns the rules, and learns them well enough to use them to his advantage. Mumsy, as the head of the family, quickly claims her sexual rights to the new man, and Nanny’s jealousy begins to reveal cracks in the family façade. When New Friend seduces Girly, things get even more complicated.
It’s clear that Mumsy has slept with previous friends but it seems that this is the first time for Girly, and the fact that all three women are in love with New Friend complicates the family dynamic, with the trio all jockeying for position at the top of the pecking order. This is, after all a matriarchal family: Sonny’s position is that of an outsider, an observer who’s just good for a bit of heavy lifting and being annoying.
Inevitably violence erupts and sexual jealousy leads to murder. In keeping with the coy nature of the film, most of the violence takes place off screen and what is shown is bloodless. The same goes for sex; it’s very much what we used to call “dot, dot, dot” sex, with the camera drawing discretely away when things get hot. The odd scene out is Girly’s seduction. Here Francis chooses to focus in close on her face throughout, and truth be told I found it a bit intrusive and creepy, a feeling only heightened by the age difference between Girly and New Friend.
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly has acquired a reputation that’s a little grander than it deserves, possibly due to it being lost and unseen for quite a while. It’s adapted from a play by the author Maisie Mosco, and I could find out absolutely nothing about it beyond the title “Happy Family.” The writer was clearly questioning the nature of the nuclear family and how it functions in the absence of a male figure. We have no idea whether the characters are actually related. They are certainly role playing, but their roles don’t seem set in stone. The final scene of two women sitting on the porch knitting mirrors an earlier scene, but the characters have changed. Is this the first time this has happened, and has the introduction of a sexually manipulative male been the catalyst?
This isn’t some of Freddie Francis’s greatest work, but it is an entertaining film and it’s fun to see the way suggestion and innuendo bring simmering rivalries to the boil. The acting is sound throughout. Pat Heywood plays Nanny as a woman who knows her place only too well and resents it. Ursula Howells’ Mumsy looks like a spun sugar confection but occasionally reveals a centre of solid steel. Howard Trevor as Sonny has the hardest time. Sonny is a pretty thankless role, very much an outsider in a female family unit, and he is the character most deserving of a poke in the eye. It’s easy to see why Vanessa Howard made such an impact at the time. Apart from the school uniform fetish wear, she delivers a fascinating performance, skittering from childish to sinister regularly and with ease.
Final verdict? Certainly fun but not nasty enough and nowhere near weird enough for a place in the final line up.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Although viewers expecting a full-blooded horror story will inevitably be disappointed by the tame approach (only fleeting moments of violence and restrained hints of sex), MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY, AND GIRLY does tread on genre territory, in an Addams Family kind of way; its closest antecedent is THE OLD DARK HOUSE, which also featured a family full of weirdos in a dusty old mansion. No match for James Whale’s 1932 classic, MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY is just dark and weird enough to sustain interest as an off-beat cult item…”–Steve Biodrowski, Cinefastique (DVD)