The popular idea of an entire deranged family (or surrogate family unit) seems to have really taken off in the 1970s with the release of such films as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and continues strong to this day. Before those, we had Jack Hill's wonderfully twisted SPIDER BABY (1964; released in 1968) and this equally bizarre British effort from renowned cinematographer and frequent genre director Freddie Francis. At a secluded manor, a joyous, very wealthy family of four; matriarch Mumsy (Ursula Howells), daughter Girly (Vanessa Howard), son Sonny (Howard Trevor) and housemaid Nanny (Pat Heywood), seem to shy away from normal household conventions. They believe in simple pleasures such as play time, knitting, trips to the park and zoo and tea in the afternoon; always opening their home to new "friends" along the way. The problem? They're all homicidal maniacs and the "friends" (usually bums, drunks or others whose disappearances may not be a priority to police) are eventually murdered when they wear out their welcome or threaten to leave! Into the home comes their latest guest, known only as New Friend (Michael Bryant), who is blamed for the death of his drunken date (Imogen Hassall) after a lethal (and non-accidental) fall from a playground slide. But New Friend isn't about to be "sent to the angels" without putting up a fight, and tries to manipulate the ladies in the house into turning on one another.
Based on the play Happy Family by Maisie Mosco (adapted for the screen by Brian Comport), this is a fairly original black comic horror film with effective performances, plenty of surprises and a very sick sense of humor. The shocking antics of the family are relayed with a very casual and nonchalant touch by the actors, which makes the humor all the more ghoulish. A good example is when Mum finds a head boiling in a pot on the stove and turns to her daughter, saying "Girly!" with that motherly tone a parent reserves for their child when they do or say something surprising, yet amusing. Another interesting touch (which is likely a homage to PEEPING TOM) is that Sonny films the murders, which the whole family watch later on as a normal family would their vacation videos.
All of the actors are good (Michael Ripper also has a throwaway cameo as a zookeeper), but the clear standout is little-known British actress Howard. As the provocative, emotionally-stunted Girly (a grown woman stuck at about age 7), Howard creates a character worth remembering; fluctuating between child-like innocent, finger-sucking jailbait seductress (a la LOLITA) and dangerous psychopath with astonishing ease. It's a shame that the attractive and clearly talented actress had such a short-lived career that lasted only about five years. Supposedly, she became disillusioned when several of her latest pictures (including this one and the 1971 psycho-thriller WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL?) barely got released. She also appeared in BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968), CORRUPTION (1968) and the TV-movie THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1973) before throwing in the towel, would go on to marry Oscar-winning producer Robert Chartoff (RAGING BULL, ROCKY) and start a family.
Released on video in the 1980s on the Prism label, GIRLY is unfortunately not on DVD as of yet. Scorpion Releasing have announced a 2010 release. If that happens, this will likely pick up a nice-sized and much-deserved cult following.