9.20.2011

The psychotronic diaries: "We're a happy family!"



There’s almost something too classy about Girly (dir. Freddie Francis, 1970) for it to qualify as a truly psychotronic film—perhaps, being English-made, it somehow feels too literate, too intelligent, to be as sleazy as American drive-in fare from the same period.  (The same could be said about the wonderful, and roughly contemporary, Vincent Price film Theatre of Blood, 1973, which is probably the only gore film that assumes that the audience has a good working knowledge of Shakespeare.)  Girly is apparently based on an English play called Happy Family by Maisie Mosco, and it bears the influence of Pinter, especially his twisted family romances The Birthday Party (1959) and The Homecoming (1966).  Girly is itself a twisted family romance: in a dilapidated Gothic country house, the nubile Girly (Vanessa Howard) and her post-adolescent brother Sonny play murderous, childlike games and sleep in cribs; pert Nanny clucks her tongue affectionately; and blithely imperious Mumsy presides over all with a warm, but stern, eye. 

Into this domestic circle comes “a new friend,” played by William Bryant—a gigolo who, like many others before him, has been lured into the house by Girly’s innocently sexy charms.  He soon finds himself trapped in the house, forced to play by the family’s intricate set of rules…which extend to the bedroom.  Rather than simply showing Bryant’s slow victimization by the family, Girly
has him try to outwit Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly by turning them against one another.  The film is thus Pinteresque in its attention to the subtle shifts in power within a tightly knotted group of characters as well as in its depiction of the “happy family” as seething with perversity.  (We get the sense that Girly and Sonny’s relationship extends beyond the fraternal, and the dynamic between Mumsy and Nanny is queerly sadomasochistic; by the end, Bryant has gone to bed with all three of the women, who at one point work out a kind of time-share agreement.  It recalls the father and brothers deciding to “share” Ruth at the end of The Homecoming.)  

But the Pinteresque in Girly also comes through in its devilish comedy.  This is, like Theatre of Blood, a superlative horror comedy, because the comedy doesn’t just supplement the horror, it grows out of it. The director, Freddie Francis, also made the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Tales from the Crypt (1972).  Girly is tremendously cheeky in its turning nursery rhymes and children’s games into the stuff of menace—but the effect is fun, jaunty, not deeply upsetting or enigmatic as it is in Pinter’s plays.  The actors finely walk the line between seriousness and camp.  Girly and Sonny go tearing through the house and onto the lawn, screaming and chasing after one of their captive “friends,” to which Mumsy placidly looks up from her knitting and muses to Nanny, “They are such lovely children!”  Nanny, dewy-eyed, agrees.  This may not be a film for the ages, but it’s a cut above the average horror film—or the average psychotronic film.     

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