An acclaimed Oscar winning cameraman of the highest regard, Freddie Francis also had a second career as a horror director, bestowing upon him fandom from an entirely different realm. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Francis worked for Hammer (helming one “Frankenstein”, one “Dracula” and several PSYCHO-inspired thrillers) and Amicus (helming some of their trademark omnibus pictures, and several of their single-storied efforts, most impressively, THE SKULL), as well as working for a few other British film companies. GIRLY (also known as MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY) is an independently made effort that Francis actively helped get off the ground, and it turns out to be one of his personal favorites as a director. Rarely seen and never on television, Scorpion Releasing now unleashes on Blu-ray what Variety described as, “A macabre combo of Disney and Hammer films”.
Adolescent brother and sister Girly (Vanessa Howard, WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?) and Sonny (Howard Trevor) abide in a decaying countryside mansion run by Mumsy (Ursula Howells, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS) and their maid-attired Nanny (Pat Heywood, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?). Behaving as bratty school children, Girly and Sonny frequently bring playmates (preferably adult males) back home to indulge in bizarre, child-like games at the insistence of Mumsy and Nanny. Their latest playmate, known only as “New Friend” (Michael Bryant, TORTURE GARDEN) gets involved with the siblings due to his initial attraction to Girly, but soon finds himself a prisoner in their home after a playground incident revolving around the “accidental” death of his girlfriend. The New Friend is startled by the morbid activities within the household, but rather than attempting an escape (sure to trigger his death), he plays along with the ultra oddball quartet, using sexual tension and other retaliating means to ultimately turn the family unit against each other.
As Francis’ directorial credits are mostly made up of the more conventional horror and sci-fi opuses, it’s rather curious to see him as the filmmaker behind GIRLY, as it seems like the kind of project more akin to a director like Curtis Harrington. Francis actually was alerted to the play this is based on ("Happy Family" by Maisie Mosco) and approached his friend Brian Comport to write a screenplay, feeling that the subject would make a good, "kooky" film. On GIRLY’s lack of reception upon release, Francis said, “I was very disappointed, because I loved the film.” (The Films of Freddie Francis by Wheeler Winston Dixon). Whereas most of Francis’ horror films had the comfort of a studio, this one takes full advantage of the interiors and exteriors of Oakley Court, the grand gothic estate seen in numerous British genre films and most notoriously utilized for 1975’s THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
GIRLY is a weird little picture with vague, homicidal characters played solidly by a talented cast. Francis and Comport were obviously going for a specific kind of film, a black comedy about an extremely dysfunctional fatherless clan living in their own little nursery rhyme environment with their own twisted code of morals. Not really knowing if Girly and Sonny are brother and sister, or actually under-aged (they don’t attend school) or if Mumsy (devilishly underplayed by Howells with a perpetual painted grin) is really their mum, the family’s strangeness is exemplified by such sights as the siblings sleeping in adult-sized cribs and Nanny slumbering in an uncomfortable bunk at the foot of Mumsy’s bed. The violence and the sex is smartly implied rather than displayed graphically, with several of the murder scenes remaining disturbing and a memorable, and a sequence where Girly is deflowered is convincingly played out off screen. Although it was unintentional, a bit where Sonny (dressed in Indian face paint and attire) shoots his victim with an arrow, and films the events on a movie camera, is very reminiscent of Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM (a film Francis apparently wasn’t too fond of).
A charming little starlet with a youthful, sexy look, Vanessa Howard was a perfect fixture in British films of the period. Prancing around in short skirts and easily seducing any man who lays eyes on her, Howard pretty much carries the film and her adorable doll-eyed blonde image was the centerpiece of Cinerama’s advertising campaign for its U.S. release. Howard made appearances in the Peter Cushing vehicles THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR and CORRUPTION in the late 1960s, and later starred in the rarely screened Amicus thriller WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?. After the early 1970s, she disappeared from the film business altogether (sadly, she passed away in 2010 at the age of 62). Hammer character great Michael Ripper (a favorite of Francis) has a bit part as a grumpy zookeeper, tragic Brit starlet Imogen Hassal (“The Countess of Cleavage”, also in Hammer’s WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH) appears as the New Friend’s ill-fated gal pal, and Hugh Armstrong (unforgettable in Gary Sherman’s RAW MEAT) has no dialog as another unfortunate houseguest/prisoner. The first victim, the one they name “Soldier” (and the one who gets buried up to his neck in sand) is played by Robert Swann who can also be seen in Francis’ THE CREEPING FLESH as a young aristocrat on the make for a prostitute.
Virtually unseen since its 1980s VHS release through Prism Entertainment until Scorpion released it on DVD a few years ago, GIRLY now receives the Blu-ray treatment (in a limited edition of 1000 copies). Bearing the original longer title (MUMSY, SONNY, NANNY AND GIRLY) for the opening credits, the new HD master is presented here in a gorgeous 1.78:1 1080p transfer. Colors are vividly strong, with crisp detail and an absolutely clean image (grain and other print blemishes remain minimal), and the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English track is also satisfactory.
Originally recorded for Scorpion’s DVD release, there’s an enjoyable video interview with screenwriter Brian Comport (28:16) as he discusses his career, with GIRLY being the focal point, but he also touches upon other genre films he wrote such as THE ASPHYX and THE FIEND, as well as Pete Walker’s MAN OF VIOLENCE (Comport passed away in 2013). The lovely Katarina Leigh Waters is on hand for another “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” intro segment, which begins with Kat in a gag skit where she's dressed up in schoolgirl attire and wielding an axe (she goes onto relay info about the cast and director Francis). The original theatrical trailer (“the family that plays together, slays together”) is also included. (George R. Reis)
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