Girly, the American title of Freddie Francis's 1970 flick Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly, comes deceptively packaged. First, the flick's latest yank-market dress focuses on the unquestionably marketable lolitaism of Vanessa Howard's girl-woman, "Girly," at the expense of the other characters. Second, the marketing copy suggests some sort of torture pornish plot, spiced up with a bit of gender-politics tinged revenge. Reading the DVD box or scanning the Netflix description, one could be forgiven for thinking that you were getting some precursor to the modern torture porn flick, but squeezed into the '80s template of the classic slasher, where sexual desire is punishable by death.
The bad news is that your not getting anything like the horror movie you signed on for.
The good news is that you getting a small little gem of a flick: an acid-etched portrait of the absurd Victorian ideologies that, even today, hang over any discussion of family life. Surreally straight-faced, gleefully inappropriate, and possessed of that wonderfully British ability to be grotesque and reserved at the same time, Girly is one of the best satires of the nearly-inherent amorality of family life ever made. And who better than the Brits to pull it off? For at least three generations, Brits have creatively and comically wrestled with problem of arbitrary authority. It's a legacy of the last remaining monarchy. From the Goon Show's love of militarized nonsense ("Seagoon: Bloodnok, parade your men!") to Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, there's a brilliant and essential tradition of British comedy that recognizes that order and reason are, sadly, too often strangers. The result is an absurd world of rules, but no purpose; law, but no justice; church, but no faith; government, but no leadership; dictionaries, but no meaning.
And what social structure better epitomizes this horrific state of affairs than the modern family? You've got the authority of the parent figures, whose power is nearly absolute, but also merely an accident of biology. Despite hundred's of years of political evolution, parental authority, with its fascist combination of righteousness through physical superiority and general immunity to the will of the governed, is a monstrous throwback to our cave days. Combine that with the family's tribal clannishness and the idea that, whatever the norms of human behavior are, they stop at the homestead door to be replaced by the wise rule of the parents, you've got the mother - metaphoric play on words intentional - of all grotesquely arbitrary systems of order.
And yet, family often gets a pass. Steeped in Dickensian a mythology of childhood, besotted with "angel of the house" ideology, Brits often laugh off the creepy mini-monarchism of family life, treating these micro-dictatorships as little more than a delightful eccentricity.
Which is why its so delightful when somebody finally says, "Oh, for fuck's sake, let's just say it! This is basically a Ministry of Silly Walks with more doilies."
The plot of Girly will be familiar to horror fans. It's a Boy's Own Paper version of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (And weirdly evocative of the echo-titled Mum and Dad, which brought the influence full circle by making ostentatiously Brit version of TCM and ending up with a working class splatterpunk version of Girly.) Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly live in a massive, rotting castle of an estate, living out some bizarre fantasy of British gentry family life. Sonny and Girly regularly leave the estate to gather "friends" - homeless drunks and the like - whom they bring home for games and treats. Eventually the guests figure out the family is utterly nuts, which leads to a crisis with the fam, which leads to an early demise for the guest.
This pattern begins to unravel when one of the new friends decides that, despite the clear homicidal insanity of the family, he likes the financial and sexual advantages family membership could confer to him. Consequently, he begins to navigate the Wonderland-by-way-of-Most-Dangerous-Game household with an eye to installing himself in the role of the missing patriarch.
(This twist strikes me as a distinctly national flourish: the idea that, despite the horror of the situation, you could make it work for you belongs to a long tradition of anti-hero station-climbers. It appears here and in the much more violent and viscerally unpleasant Mum and Dad. For contrast, the transformation of Stretch from victim to chainsaw wielding madwoman is treated as a descent in the TCM franchise.)
So, what are you not going to get with Girly? Despite the blood splattered packaging, you're not getting gore. There's a body count of, I think, three, in Girly, and though one of these is quite fierce in the violence suggested, there little to no blood on the screen. I don't want to suggest that this is a failing. In fact, I think that's part of the gag. The film's making fun of the way the Cult of Domesticity hides all manner of creepy crap. This overt and clumsy nod to propriety underscores propriety's role in hiding the submerged, sinister Freudian currents of family life.
The semi-feminist empowerment vibe you catch from the ballyhoo is an empty promise as well. The character of Girly is fascinating. There's a reason the rerelease suggests she the anchor of the film. Her strange balance between vapid nymphet seductress and young woman coming into her own power steals every scene she's in. Curiously enough, even the filmmakers seem confused by Girly. Sometimes the camera seems to want to linger on Girly's nubile flesh, as if unaware that Girly's eroticism suggest a fault line in delusion of the family. Other times, the film is overtly suggesting that the family contains the seeds of its own destruction, and Girly embodies that potential. (A situation that is made all the more ironic insomuch as New Friend's lever into the family is Girly's budding sexuality, the very thing that threatens to tear the family apart.) This isn't to say that feminist critics won't find something interesting about the character of Girly. In Jury of Her Peers, a massive history of women's literature in America, Elaine Showalter suggest there are three levels of cultural production that should interest feminists. First, there's anything that is the output of female creators. This holds a historical and archival interest. Second, there are cultural productions meant to overtly promote feminist ideologies. The political importance of this seems obvious, but it's artistic limitations are perhaps less obvious - in horror terms it leads to a feminism that pretends that feminist horror began with Buffy and persists only in her many clones. Third and finally, there are representations of women that reveal the symbolic status of women in their era. Girly is a near perfect exemplar of the third type. At once pitiful and predatory, infantile and aggressive, innocent and overripe, she's the Euro-trashy sister of Lo, wobbly and overburdened with an excess of male anxieties and signifiers.
Visually, Girly is a remarkably conservative flick. Especially if you consider that fact the fact that flick is coming of the tale end of '60s cinema. The film looks good, but the the editing is rigorously traditional and the style calm. It may have been an intentional display of reserve to anchor the surrealism of the story in a "realistic" visual vocabulary. Regardless of the reason, it is notable.
Girly, honestly, is a failure as a horror film. But I think it's marketing as a genre piece is misleading. Check out Girly as wonderful example of black humor. It's near perfect in that weight class.