Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Head Under Heels: GIRLY (1970)

Much as I love grindhouse cinema, I'll confess some of the themes--the rape-revenge and WIP sub-genres in particular--often leave me feeling soiled and soured on humanity, resentful of having my empathic response and innate chivalry used as a cheap fuel for 'sharpening me up' and conservative catharsis (that never full catharts). Walking the streets afterwards, in a state of semi-shock, like a Tennessee Williams heroine pining for dead 'friend' and sensing only brusque, misogynist licentious hostility all around, it takes me weeks to recover, memories of the vile recreations I endured dredging up at the oddest times. I've been told by many girlfriends that this venomous anti-misogynist rage is not sexy but what am I to do? As an English major at Syracuse during the mid-to-late 1980s, I was caught up in a time of great liberal backlash/sexual hysteria--Satanic panic and the dawn of PC thuggery--wherein sensitive new age guys like me were conditioned to feel guilty for every impure thought and meanwhile our friends in the dorm were being date-raped before there was such a phrase, and too cowed to go the cops. By senior year, there was "take back the night" marches, but by then militant feminist backlash had targeted even me!

That's why, perhaps, I've always long been in love with dangerous women, the type who kick ass, smoke, drink, dose, carry guns, laugh at the cosmic joke and beat a frat boy to death with a champagne bottle all at the same time. Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted is my guru. Yes, I know that's a pretty bad choice for a guru. I'm always ready to walk a long way for a glimpse at the glint of true madness in a young Lolita's eye, the kind that's not kindness-of-strangers-dependent/delusional but the opposite. They absolve me of a great burden, for they don't need my anguished pounding at the ovular gates of the screen offering like some interdimensional woodsman to enter frame and rescue. If these women could traverse the other way they'd likely kill me instead and I like that.

And now, I'm right with the times: the poster girl for the current era is Sarah Palin, with her tan and form-fitted bright red raincoat and MILF glasses, standing on a podium surrounded by crisp white Alaskan snow; her hot breath steaming the microphone, spouting enough fear-inducing fascist rhetoric to make Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate cry on a dove. I would never vote for her, but I dig when girls rise up and use their sexual super powers for evil instead of good, and if they can't have their revenge on Seattle like Francis Farmer one day will let them destroy all the side-burned swingers, angry lawyers, priests, parents, and homeless they can get their claws on! Hence my deep love for: Spider Baby,  Don't Deliver Us From Evil,  Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Vampyres, Mesa of Lost Women, Daughter of Darkness, and so on (if you know any others, do let me know).

Thank heaven, then, for little Girly. The film's treacly decor (lots of dolls and paneling) could have been too much to handle but director Freddie Francis does the impossible and makes the whole dreary Brit tackiness thing seem actually cozy in its overgrown gone-to-seed, dead plant and smashed china kinda way. Girly is the exception to the 'dotty gentry' Brit genre, for it is truly mad. It possesses a sense of giddy feral freedom, unwinding as a constantly devolving children's game with macabre undertones, delusional family members fussing over and doting on homicidal sweethearts who seem old enough to vote but surely have no ID. So what's not to love, even as the axe comes roaring down? The insanity of the depicted matriarchy resembles Grey Gardens at times, but it comes by it honestly: dolls, pre-empathic (latent) sadism, games like 'Grocery Store' and 'Cowboys and Indians' and an array of children's chants and guessing games in a never-ending whirl of chants and rhymes are all part of a devolution brought on by incest and apparent lax mansion real estate tax, and/or big trust funds. They have no father to initiate the children into the social order, so it all comes down to lots of macabre nursery rhymes and strange "rules" of the house, and the way, even here in this macabre paradise, sex destroys everything, but oh! That Girly.

A knock-out of the Sue Lyon in Night of the Iguana /Jill Banner as Virginia (aka Spider Baby) / Carroll Baker as Baby Doll variety, Vanessa Howard captures the spirit of wicked evil as only young pre-empathetic girlies can. Her eyes are alight with unholy mischief, and then -- later -- the guilty pangs of blossoming womanhood--and all the drag that implies. Sexual awakening drives even ordinary teenagers insane, prompting a whole slew of irrational behavior, so how apropo then that for this insane girl, sexual awakening would mean a kind of awful late-blooming sanity; her rapport with the sad but savvy eyes of "New Friend" causes a rift with the deranged clan, but it's one her craziness fights so she winds up oscillating between compassion and sadism with the same finesse as Jim Siedow in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (with Michael Bryant in the Marilyn Burns position). And she's got lovely legs which in little socks and schoolgirl maroon skirts, are fit drive straight male viewers like myself into moaning fits and seizures; her straight blonde hair demarcates a princesses of the late 60s/early 70s variety; her simmering red schoolgirl uniform is like a pomegranate-squeezed hallucination against the perennial grey and mud green garden fog of parks and the zoo. Howard bites into her character with such a cunning glee that you want to lick the juice off her chin, even if means she might turn around bite your tongue off.

The rest of the cast as a whole is marvelous, too, full of joyous relish in this macabre set-up. We simply adore the droll restraint of Ursula Howells as Mumsy (the British title of the film is Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) and the slow burn of Pat Heywood as sexually frustrated Nanny, even the interloper who wisely seduces the lot of them, "New Friend" as they call him, Michael Bryant (who kind of looks like a hungover James Coburn), does a good job in a difficult role (a fusion of aghast and intrigued, the louche swinger in him triumphing over the reactionary); Imogen Hassall is his fur and white-dress clad girlfriend who dies early-on. She's excellent at being bored by the drunken dawn kid games and unaware of immanent danger as they meet and drunkenly cavort at the park playground with Girly and Sonny as the sun comes up. Francis's camerawork is imaginative and rich as always, replete with some good crane shots (he won the Oscars for his cinematography in The Elephant Man and Glory) though some of the interiors seem flatly lit and the palette is very mushy even if there are plenty of dark greens and maroons. Bernard Ebbinghouse's score is a nicely subversive mix of bouncy elevator, pensive classical bits that always seem on the verge of a funeral and add great texture against the nursery school maniacal zest.

Man, this film's got my number. I'm trying to less subjective here but if I love a film I take it very personally. Love kills everything it touches, including objectivity. As Burt Lancaster said in Visconti's The Leopard: "Marriage is six months of fire and forty years of ashes." If you ever were a swinger, you might use that line to justify a lifestyle that includes occasionally waking up from a two-day bender on a stranger's couch, snuggled against a snoring pit bull whom you do not know. To this day, I still don't know what happened that night, or whose couch that was, but I've chosen the swinging path over that of the spouse and ungrey garden and that's my life, and I'll probably do it again. Such is our antihero's lot as the male version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. He reminds me of me. God forgive us both, and whomever'll have us. We've all let ourselves be led by spirited and charismatic blondes into iron maws such as this. Some of us made it out alive, or in a state that resembles aliveness in at least half the usual shambling ways. What have we learned? How to go along with a deadpan joke --even when it's getting awfully macabre; how to play the game like your life depended on it; and most of all, that the trick to staying alive is going down early and often.

Man, I'm off topic!  Let me pull in some help from one of 60s-70s-era British cinema's best friends, Cinebeat's amazing Kimberly Lindbergs:
Before Freddie Francis started directing horror films he worked as a cinematographer on celebrated British dramas such as Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). His unique talents helped give birth to the British New Wave and he was partially responsible for ushering in a new era of British cinema. Francis considered Girly to be one of his best films and I think it’s fascinating to view the movie as an extension of his previous work as a cinematographer. In some ways Girly could be seen as a seamless blend of Francis’ early beginnings as a member of the British New Wave combined with his bleak sense of humor and macabre sensibilities.
Speaking of stingers, I dedicate this blog entry to my favorite new show: Investigative Discovery Channel's TV crime doc series, DEADLY WOMEN! And on that note, free Brenda Wiley!

That's her brother!

And strange coincidence, almost all my own films have the same Venus Flytrap / Vagina Dentata theme, particularly QUEEN OF DIC/SKS.

PS - It's filmed entirely on location!


  1. Man, I have been away from movie blogging for too long - Reading your "Girly" review reminds me why I added Acidemic to my blog roll in the first place!

    Agree with you on the difficulties in reviewing something that hits you like that - which sounds like a great post all its own.

  2. I'm really glad you liked GIRLY, Erich. After I wrote up my piece about it last Halloween I got mixed responses from people who didn't care for it as well as those who did. I love the movie myself so I'm glad I'm not alone. It's an interesting and fun film. I love Vanessa Howard in it!

  3. jervaise brooke hamster04 August, 2013

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