Retro Film Report #14: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1969)

I'd heard this movie was one of the lost classics of British horror films, so I decided to give the film (called simply Girly in the States) a try. Considering it was directed by famed British horror veteran, Freddie Francis, I felt it had to be seen sooner or later. So, here goes.

The movie begins with a long somewhat yawn inducing introduction to the brother and sister prancing around a zoo in schoolboy and schoolgirl uniforms acting ridiculously childlike/retarded. Other than Girly's intensely short miniskirt, your humble blogger was unimpressed.

Things start to get a bit more interesting when, next, we find Girly and Sonny taunting a homeless man; giving him alcohol, ridiculing him, and filming the whole thing. Naturally, the homeless guy is wondering WTF is going on.

Girly and Sonny take our hobo home to meet Mumsy and Nanny.  Mumsy is sort of a Miss Haversham and obviously rules the roost.  I can't quite figure why this homeless man is going along with all this (he seems horribly confused and put out), unless he thinks he might get laid.

In a particularly creepy scene, the gang is playing "oranges and lemons", skipping around merrily... until the lovely Girly takes the final lines of the old poem literally and chops his head off with an axe (not visible on camera).

"Oranges and lemons", say the bells of St. Clement's
"You owe me five farthings", say the bells of St. Martin's
"When will you pay me?" say the bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich", say the bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be?" say the bells of Stepney
"I do not know", says the great bell of Bow
"Here comes a candle to light you to bed"
"And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!"

The following day, Sonny and Girly are out to entrap more "friends" to play their games.  This time they entice a male prostitute and his client leaving a party.  They head to the playground (with the geezer obviously drooling over Girly) for some kindergarten fun.  However, the client grows weary of the games and starts giving her male escort static.

Subsequently, the chick is thrown to her death from the top of the slide as punishment.  Girly and Sonny bring her body back to the house and stow her in a trunk.  Things are getting beyond morbid at this point.

Note: the client was played by Imogen Hassal who committed suicide in London by overdose of the barbiturate Tuinal in 1980.

The Game continues when Girly convinces the "New Friend" that he was the one that killed her in a drunken stupor.  New Friend was too liquored up to remember the truth.  It's the same plot as Tom Sawyer, where Injun Joe makes a drunk think he committed a murder that Injun Joe actually committed.

The next fifteen minutes of the film involve Sonny and Girly playing annoying tricks on their poor New Friend.  Things take another morbid turn when New Friend finds his dead client in his bed with a note around her neck: "Rule #1: Play the Game".

But the New Friend isn't quite as easily duped and as predictable as their previous victims.  In fact, New Friend is a male escort by trade, and so has a few tricks of his own.  He lures Girly into a shed and, well, begins "practicing his trade".  Girly likes. Girly likes a lot.

I'll take a moment here to point out one aspect of this film that elevates it beyond its low budget limitations: Francis' cinematography.  Francis eventually became a hall of fame cinematographer with movies like Man in the Moon and Cape Fear in 1991, as well as great work in Glory, The Elephant Man and Dune.  You can really see some masterful shots in this film that even a layman like myself can appreciate.

Anyway, it doesn't take long for New Friend to cast his spell over Nanny and Mumsy.  It seems the only member of this whole effed up household that isn't attracted to New Friend is Sonny... who seems a bit effeminate, and may be hiding things.  However, we'll never know Sonny has hiding in his closet because Girly goes Medieval on his ass for even suggesting that he was planning to kill New Friend.

Notice the crib in the image above: that's where Girly sleeps.  Evidently this movie (which is based on a play) is some kind of allegory for the breakdown of the nuclear family of the 1950s as a result of the free love movement of the 1960s.  I imagine that crib is symbolic of their arrested development, blah, blah, blah. Whatever.  Leave it for someone else to interpret.

Next, Nanny and Girly get in argument regarding New Friend, and I'll give you one guess who ends up on the winning end of this argument. You guessed it. Girly kills Nanny with an axe whilst singing this lovely little dittie:

"Nasty Nanny is no good! Chop her up for fire wood! When she's dead, boil her head, make it into gingerbread!"

New Friend then explains to Girly that he'll be sleeping in Mumsy's room now that Nanny is gone.  Naturally, Girly isn't too fond of the idea.
Mother and daughter meet in an atrium and begin to knit - it's a brilliant scene because you know they both are planning to kill one another.  Yet, they maintain an air of cordiality.

The viewer is left wondering who is going to prevail: the diabolical mastermind (Mumsy) or the violent psychotic (Girly).  Let's find out.

The two come to an agreement: they will share New Friend with each getting him every other day.  It seems reasonable enough, but both seem very suspicious... as if this compromise was only temporary.  Neither one is really going to share for long.
Nest we see New Friend climbing into bed hiding a poison needle under his pillow.  What's going to happen next? I'm on the edge of my seat.

WHAT?!?! Holy shit, are you kidding me? The movie just f***ing ends! Give me a f***ing break!
What are we to believe happens? I read the comments on IMDb and they are just as perplexed.  Thus, although there's a lot to like about this film, I can't really recommend it because its ending is shite. 

At least we can lay one open ended question to rest - what ever happened to Vanessa Howard, the actress who played Girly? She seemed to drop off the face of the earth shortly after this film was released.  Fortunately, Brother Gil has your answer.

She married the successful filmmaker Robert Chartoff and lived happily ever after.  Her son, William, is the producer of Rocky Balboa (2006) and the upcoming film The Mechanic (2011).. 


  1. Interesting, but I think I will stick with your synopsis and leave it at that.

    A sequel could work though, with Girly being the new Mumsy, having had children with New Friend. Hmm?

  2. Never seen it and have heard very mixed reviews on it. As far as British horror I always tend to like the gothic style films better than contemporary films.

  3. I saw this one recently via Netflix and didn't know quite what to make of it. With the...shall we say, "stylized" acting and the directorial reticence to show any blood and nudity, it was almost like a half-comedic, quirky romp. But then there was all this genuinely weird stuff going on in the family dynamic that made it seem almost straight-up horror--in fact, at one point I was thinking this family was kind of a "proper British" version of the Leatherface clan in TCM!

    In short, it's like an After School Special from Hell. :P

    One thing that I was perplexed by, or at least intrigued by, was the question of whether this "family" was in fact actually a family. I don't know if there were any real textual pointers to it, but at times I got the feeling that this group of crazies might not actually be related to each other at all--that they were simply living together and had agreed upon their "roles," and the all-important Rules of the Game. Maybe it was the way the mask seemed to slip in certain interactions between the Nanny and the Mumsy (granted, the Nanny isn't meant to be related, but still)--as when Mumsy wakes Nanny from a sound sleep and she curses at her completely out of character before remembering where she is and falling back into the role. Strange stuff.

    A very odd little flick that many will find infuriating, and I did too, a bit--yet I'm still thinking about it, so maybe it did something right! :)

    Also, Vanessa Howard reminded me a lot of a young Liz Phair. Which is probably another reason it stuck with me. :)

  4. Very interesting perspective on the movie, Vicar. It's true, there were a lot of unresolved facets about the film that kept you wondering long after the film was over. Of course, the biggest unresolved issue is the crap ending, which I just couldn't overcome.

    And she most definitely reminds me of Liz Phair. Good call.

  5. Thanks for the tip. I have never heard of this movie, though I consider myself a retro-horror connaisseur. Haveing been forewarned by your excellent review I won't be dissapointed by the non-ending and will be sure to check it out when I come across this film.

  6. I'm surprised that I've never heard of this one! I thought I was familiar with most British horror films from that era!

  7. Why can't you just imagine the ending? I think that's the idea. It's not a "crap" ending — I think you need to wean yourself off Hollywood-prepared babyfood.
    It's a great film, and you can't take that fact way from it.
    BTW, Vanessa Howard is now divorced.

  8. And it's not a low budget obscurity. It was planned as a big production, filmed entirely in secret. Unfortunately, the distributor went bust just at the wrong time and the film practically disappeared from view for 40 years, apart from a brief release on video in America. It has never been shown on television in the UK and hasn't been on a cinema screen here since maybe 1970.

  9. She died in 2010. The cause is not shown anywhere on the internet.

  10. She also divorced Chartoff sometime prior to 1992. She was featured in an article that year about former Hollywood wives helping recently divorced homemakers get back into the workforce.

    Howard's a very interesting figure in British B-cinema because of how many times the opportunity to crossover into mainstream cinema passed her by, completely due to circumstance and bad luck. The movie in the article, "Romeo and Juliet 1971," was finally put into theaters as "What Became of Jack and Jill?" but it was a super limited release, and by that time, Howard had already retired. She also remained unaware for a while that Girly had a cult following in the US, where it had a nice run on the grindhouse/indy circuit in the 70s. She may not even have known how beloved the movie was until the year before she died, when the company that bought the DVD rights approached her to do a commentary. According to a press release last year, she'd agreed, but was already terminally ill at the time and proved too sick to record anything.

    Maybe knowing that something she'd once loved had actually made some kind of impact, no matter how small, was of some small comfort to her in the end.