Monday, December 30, 2013

Girly (1970)

The Movie: Mumsy (Ursula Howells), Nanny (Pat Heywood), Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are a happy family who live in a large manor house in the countryside. However, they get lonely for outside company, so oftentimes Sonny and Girly go out to more populated areas to pick up ‘New Friends’ and bring them home. Once they get them home, the men are given the “proper” outfit (a school uniform, Sonny and Girly also wear them), and compelled to play the Game.

And what is ‘the Game?’ you ask. Well, it’s never satisfactorily defined; but overall it seems to involve playing along with the charade of being an actual new friend to the children of a Happy Family. Much of this involves actual children’s games, albeit often with a nasty twist to them. Also, there are Rules. If you break a Rule, you are punished. If you break too many; or worse, try to escape, you are “sent to the angels.”

Our real story begins when Sonny and Girly find their newest New Friend (Michael Bryant) leaving a party with a female “friend” (Imogen Hassall). New Friend is drunk off his gourd, and after one look at Girly he is more than happy to follow her and her brother to the local playground for games. Sonny and Girly arrange for the lady’s death; and when New Friend wakes up, hung over, they convince him that he killed her. Having something extra to hold over his head, the family inducts him into the Game.

However, once he’s gotten the lay of the land, New Friend starts to speculate on how he might escape. It starts when we discover that Mumsy has another use for some of the men brought in, and New Friend finds that Nanny is jealous of the arrangement. When he seduces Girly, that brings her jealousies into the mix; and New Friend sees a way that he can play the women against each other. Then Sonny, left out of the sexual politics, sees what’s going on and decides that this New Friend has to go…

The Review:

Nasty Nanny is no good! Chop her up for firewood! When she’s dead, boil her head, make it into gingerbread!

If you, dear reader, are unfortunate enough to have grown up thinking a real horror movie means splatters of blood and graphic scenes of torture and dismemberment, than I am afraid you will find the movie Girly rather dull. The usual features craved by your contemporary gorehound are nowhere in evidence here. While horrible things do happen, most of the violence is off-screen; and what we do see is not very graphic at all. The sex is mostly just hinted at, and we really don’t get to see much of Girly beyond her pretty face and lovely legs. In short, this is not just a crude exploitation flick.

However, Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, as it was originally released in its native Britain, quickly became very controversial with the critics. In all honesty it’s fairly obvious to see why, especially if you consider the moral panic of the time; Girly is an extremely disturbing movie on multiple levels. Just the basic setup, which takes a societal ideal and turns it into something nightmarishly twisted, is enough to make you cringe and probably to send most moral crusaders into a lather.

Sonny and Girly, who we are introduced to right off the bat, are just plain wrong. They’re obviously in their twenties; but they look, talk, and act exactly like children. And it doesn’t seem at all like mockery or fa├žade; they very convincingly have the mentalities of children as well. When we are shown their home life, the impression is that of a young family that has been artificially, and imperfectly, frozen in a single place of development while the rest of the world moves on around them.

In the pecking order of this group Mumsy is the top of the heap, and she is a particularly petty tyrant about it. Mumsy always gets her way; ‘I’m the Mumsy’ is how she ends all arguments and disagreements. Nobody is allowed to outdo Mumsy at anything; there are scenes where she is crocheting with Nanny or Girly, and she reminds them that they aren’t allowed to work faster or do more work than her. Mumsy is also very obviously one of those authority figures who feel that the rules apply to everyone but her; as shown in some of her arguments with Nanny.

To my mind, the best scene of disturbing foreshadowing for what is to come is when we are shown the house’s second floor, where the New Friends are kept, for the first time. It’s very subtly and effectively done; there’s nothing the characters or the camera do that actively draws attention to it, but if you look you’ll notice in the background that all the doors are boarded up. It’s unsettling, and provides a great build-up for later when we see what happens to New Friends who fail to live up to their ‘hosts’’ expectations. There is one particular scene in all this that I’m sure was what inspired the most famous scene in Stanly Kubrick’s the Shining. I’m not going to say what it is, as it’s been copied and parodied so many times in pop culture that you most likely know it even if you’ve never seen that particular movie.

Vanessa Howard steals the movie as the titular Girly. In fact, it is for that reason that when the movie was released in the United States, the ad campaign focused entirely on her. Girly is such a delightfully twisted character; a complex mixture of seductiveness, innocent childishness, and dangerous psychosis all rolled into one. Howard does an impressive juggling act with the character, making her at times sympathetic, at times desirable, and at times downright terrifying.

There is one aspect of her character that I find particularly intriguing. That aspect is her sexuality; and no, it’s not what you’re thinking. From the very beginning Girly shows a deep understanding of how to make men salivate. When the movie first came out the British censors latched onto one scene early in the film in particular, where Sonny gives Girly a piece of candy that she sucks aggressively, which suggests an incestual relationship between the two of them. However, the scenes where New Friend seduces her, and her subsequent reaction to it, suggests something completely different.

In short, when it finally comes down to it, Girly gives the impression of having no real first-hand (or maybe even second-hand) knowledge of sex at all. I, personally, find this an even more disturbing implication than the one earlier in the movie. The suggestion that a young woman of this age is almost completely ignorant of this pivotal element of life further drives home the point of just how broken this individual really is. It also suggests a vulnerability that’s a bit surprising after all we’ve seen so far. However, it contrasts in a rather frightening way with the rest of her established characteristics. Girly may be vulnerable to this New Friend’s seductions, but the fact that she really doesn’t understand any kind of healthy human interaction means that it’s going to produce some extremely unhealthy reactions. This is borne out by the extreme ways she starts reacting the threats members of her family pose to her new relationship.

And that brings us to our protagonist, the latest New Friend. I hesitate to call him a hero, for reasons that make him, for me, among the most fascinating elements of this movie. In all honesty, once he gets over being a victim and starts making his own plans to deal with his situation, I find him to be every bit as repulsive and amoral, in his own way, as his captors. However, the thing that makes him so fascinating for me is that it is exactly these undesirable qualities that he needs to survive. He has to be manipulative and amoral to be able to survive playing his captors at their own game, and then dragging them into a game of his devising where he has the advantage. If he was in any way moral or ethical, there’s no way he’d survive for very long.

I have to wonder if this is what really bothered the censors, if only on an unconscious level. While horror of any kind was never popular among them; up until only a few years before Girly came out it was always the innocent, the virtuous, and the morally upright who were able to survive and defeat the horror. If you’re used to that kind of atmosphere a movie like Girly, where the only way to survive is to become every bit as bad as the villains, if not worse, is bound to be shocking. I’m not saying Girly was in any way a first or a game-changer, I don’t know enough to make that claim; but it was definitely a sign of the changes in mindset of the younger generation. The ambiguous ending, where we’re left with no clear winner and only a few suggestive hints of who might come out on top, was probably particularly frustrating for those who wanted a neat, tidy conclusion to their movies.

So to sum it up, Girly is a very well made and immersive character study of a truly screwed-up situation. It’s not in any way graphic; but I found the psychological games and torture far more disquieting than I probably would have found graphic depictions of mutilation. If nothing else, this is a movie that I found gave me something to think about, which is something I always treasure.