Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yes, but what about mad families? What about psychotic serial killer families? Tolstoy didn’t think of that one, did he? Ever since reading about Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly in Harvey Fenton & David Flint’s Ten Years of Terror (an encyclopaedic look at 70s British horror which introduced me to many films I’d never heard of, and some I realised I ought to be glad I hadn’t) in 2001, I’ve been dying to see it, but aside from rumours that Redemption held the rights (there were obviously too many Nazi-nuns-in-bondage films to release first), there was no hint of it coming out on DVD. Then I did one of those wildly hopeful Amazon searches last week and found it had just been released. Watching it last night, I was amazed it’d taken so long, as it’s just the sort of warped filmic fare to appeal to cinephiles, particularly cult cinephiles. I’d go so far as to say that watching it was as bizarre and rewarding an experience as my first viewing of The Wicker Man, where, once I’d got over the shock of people singing, I realised this was one of the most distinctive and subtle of horror films, of precisely the sort that transcends the genre and becomes so much more than merely horrific. MNS&G might not have the awe-inspiring power of that final scene of The Wicker Man, but in a slightly whackier way it is just as distinctive, just as not-quite-horror-though-it-is, and though it couldn’t exactly be described as subtle (it’s as subtle as an eight-year-olds’ jelly-throwing contest), neither is it as over-the-top as you might expect. It’s also as distinctively British a film as they come, in a Mad Dogs and Englishmen kind of way.

Based on a 1966 play, “Happy Family”, by Maisie Mosco (who is more well-known for her multi-generational family saga about Jewish immigrants living in Manchester, Almonds and Raisins (1979), Scattered Seed (1980) and Children’s Children (1981)), MNS&G‘s action takes place almost exclusively in a rotting, rambling Victwardian pile of a house, inhabited by a family whose members are only ever known as Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly. Sonny and Girly, obviously in their late teens, dress and act as clichés of the sort of naughty-but-loveable children that only ever existed in nostalgic fiction. But their gleeful gameplaying and chanting of horrid nursery rhymes is a thin mask for a family-wide psychosis. The children go outside the house’s extensive grounds to gather “New Friends” — mostly drunks from the park (though, as the film begins, we’re told Mumsy is fed up with drunks from the park, so the children make a fateful decision to gather a slightly higher class of inebriate) — whom they forcibly involve in their twisted, childish games, where the most important rule is “Play the Game”. New Friends who don’t play the game suffer the consequences, by having the darker side of nursery rhymes literalised — as in the “Humpty Dumpty Game”, which of course ends with someone falling from a great height, and not being able to be put back together again. But their newest New Friend proves to be more up to the mark, and once he’s learned to adjust to the madness of the situation, he begins to play games of his own, manipulating the subtle undercurrent of sexual jealousy that lurks beneath the family’s rule-entrenched power structure. With, as they might say, grisly consequences.

Though, not as grisly as you’d think. For a film slap bang in the middle of a British horror boom (and directed by Freddie Francis, the man responsible for Hammer’s The Evil of Frankenstein, and Amicus’s Tales from the Crypt and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors — though he was also cinematographer on David Lynch’s Elephant Man, Dune, and Straight Story), there’s remarkably little explicit horror. The goriest the film gets is a pricked thumb (hastily kissed better), though there is a corpse in a bed, not to mention the very brief glimpse of a (non-gory) severed hand. So much more is implied than shown, which may be why the film hasn’t dated. MNS&G shows its real power in a scene near the end, in the kitchen, where the viewer will already have realised that the big pot boiling away on the stove contains something that outdoes Fatal Attraction 17 years before Fatal Attraction. You never actually get to see what’s in the pot, but the cutting between its lifted lid and the horror on people’s faces is enough to make you think you have.

The film’s strength really lies in the mix between its characters’ schizoid gameplaying and the darker, messier psychology ready to break through that thin but overbright surface. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly are always telling their New Friends that theirs is a happy family — but the fact they insist on this so much, and that “happy families need rules”, immediately gives it the lie.

So what is MNS&G about? It’s possible to enjoy it just for its weird mix of mad glee and nursery-rhyme darkness, but I think it has a power that goes beyond that. It’s of course about family. The thing about the MNS&G ménage is that, although it is sociopathic, psychopathic, not to say outright murderous, it works. It works not because of or in spite of its madness, but because the family have agreed to share a madness. And that may be the thing that transcends Tolstoy’s theory of happy and unhappy families: all families, to work as families, must be a shared form of madness — benign, in the case of happy families, less benign in the case of unhappy ones — but you know they work because the family stays together. That’s, in the end, what makes them a family.

MNS&G was released in the US as Girly, a title which, while it obviously makes the most of the film’s most striking visual asset (ahem):

…does miss the point a bit about this being, after all, a family film. Though not, obviously, a film for all the family.


Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch

Creators whose work you admire, and who talk about the process of creation in an articulate, helpful, and inspiring way are quite rare. This is, I suppose, partly because creative people are not always prepared to turn round and face the mechanics of what they’re doing, particularly if it ain’t broke. (Alan Moore has that excellent comparison between himself and someone whose livelihood depends on the vehicle they drive: they would naturally want to understand how things work under the bonnet, so why shouldn’t he?) This makes those that can do this all the more valuable. I suppose it’s only natural that the most articulate creators should be those who are used to doing collaborative work where they have to explain their creative vision so that other people can understand it. So this would include comic creators such as the already-mentioned Alan Moore (the recent DVD of The Mindscape of Alan Moore being a prime example), and film directors such as Ridley Scott (whose DVD commentaries are always excellent) and Guillermo del Toro (ditto). I wouldn’t have ever expected David Lynch to fall into this category. In interviews about his films, he notoriously declines to analyse, comment or interpret his work, which always made me think he had a basically instinctive, rather than analytical, approach. (He says: “A film should stand on its own. It’s absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words.”) So it was with great surprise that I discovered he’d written a book about the creative process, Catching the Big Fish, which was published in 2006.


It’s made up of a lot of short chapters. (Some chapters consist of a single sentence. Having just discussed the origins of Mulholland Drive, for instance, there’s a chapter called “The Box and the Key” — which are important elements in that film — which reads, simply, “I don’t have a clue what those are.”) Lynch writes in short, simple sentences which get straight to the point and leave out embellishment. He covers ideas and the creative process, film-making, anecdotes from his own life, but also there’s a lot about consciousness and meditation (the subtitle of the book is “Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity”). There’s rather more about consciousness and meditation than about creativity, but as Lynch sees the three as inextricably linked, that’s understandable.

David Lynch practices Transcendental Meditation. He sees this “diving deep down into the Self” as key to not just successful creativity, but a happy life. He doesn’t proselytise, but he also doesn’t really explain the process of TM (as they charge for courses, I suppose he can’t), which is a bit frustrating for the reader. You can’t try it out for yourself without an outlay (of about $2,500, according to Wikipedia), but I’m inclined to think that any form of “diving deep down into the Self” should do just as well, so Zen meditation, which is free to learn (simply sit there and think of nothing — a remarkably difficult thing to achieve), is probably just as good.

Lynch’s remarks about creativity are incisive. There’s nothing especially new, but hearing these things simply stated, and coming from a creator I admire, is inspiring in itself. Or perhaps this is just because Lynch’s simple prose makes everything he says seem so commonsensical. (“If you want to get one hour of good painting in, you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time” — something he was told by Bushnell Keeler, the artist father of a childhood friend. Also: “It’s crucial to have a setup, so that, at any given moment, when you get an idea, you have the place and the tools to make it happen.”) Lynch’s basic metaphor is that ideas are like fish, and, as he says, “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” In one sentence he expresses a truth about creative ideas which I’ve long thought myself but have never managed to put so succinctly: an idea is “a thought that holds more than you think it does when you receive it.” This thought, this idea, for Lynch, is his touchstone throughout the rest of the creative process. He believes in being absolutely true to it, in always comparing what you’re doing to that initial thought or feeling, and correcting what you do if it strays too far. “If you stay true to the idea,” he says, “it tells you everything you need to know.” This can mean hard work, particularly in a commercial environment which, of all the arts, film is to the greatest extent. “Stay true to yourself,” he says. “Let your voice ring out, and don’t let anybody fiddle with it.” And if you do this? “You’ll glow in this peaceful way. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!”

Here’s to that last. Oh, and the others, I suppose. But can I have the last one sooner rather than later?


After Dark by Haruki Murakami

afterdarkNight is where you hide from yourself, and where dark deeds are done. Murakami’s latest (published here in June, but available in Japan since 2004, where it was titled, in a Coca-Cola kind of way, Afutãdãku) is a short novel exploring the nightside of human existence: its characters are all either lost, hiding, caught up in or drifting through the dark regions of a city after dark. Covering the events of a single night between 11:55p.m. and 6:40a.m. (the chapters are headed with little clock icons), and taking place in a series of soulless city sets (all-night eateries, a love-hotel, an office after-hours), we follow a succession of rambling conversations between Mari Asai (whose beautiful sister, after announcing she was going to sleep for a while, hasn’t woken for several months) and Takahashi (law student by day, jazz musician by night, on the cusp of deciding which life he’s going to commit to), witness the aftermath of a characteristically Murakamian “act of overwhelming violence” in a love hotel, and get a glimpse of the even stranger, rather Lynchian psychodrama involving Mari’s sleeping beauty of a sister and the sinister Man with No Face.

I mention David Lynch because he (in films like Mulholland DriveLost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) as well as Murakami (in books like Dance, Dance, Dance and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, and many of his short stories) share an incredible ability to muster a sense of intense, looming psychological menace far more threatening than mere physical violence (though both Murakami and Lynch’s works feature sudden eruptions of over-the-top violence). Both also cast a cool air of light, quirky humour, as well as containment and composure over the surface of their works — Murakami’s prose is friendly, simple, almost innocent, Lynch’s films have an air of innocence that takes you by the hand, as a child would, only to lead you to places no child would ever go. This surface expresses, perhaps, the blank perplexity Murakami and Lynch’s characters feel towards whatever dark inner impulses they are forced to struggle with (a situation often captured through the contrast of a day-life as overbright and perfect as their night-life is sordid, dark and ugly — think of teen queen Laura Palmer’s nights of drugs and prostitution in Twin Peaks). Thankfully, both creators also take their excursions through the dark to the other side, affording at least a glimpse of redemption (Laura Palmer beatified as a glowing Christmas tree fairy at the end of Fire Walk With Me, providing an incredible feeling of hope to the end of one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen). Murakami’s moments of redemption are more low-key, but equally poetic in being felt rather than understood. By the end of After Dark there’s a sense that decisions have been made, paths chosen, freeing the two youngsters, Mari and Takahashi, from being stuck in the night-time limbo where the others they have met (the violent businessman Shirakawa, the love hotel cleaner Korogi) are hopelessly mired.

A definite improvement on the rather rambling and overlong Kafka on the Shore, After Dark is not just classic Murakami, I think it is a new a step in an already talented author’s work.