Monday, June 1, 2009

Family Values

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY (1969)
THE CHILDREN (2008)
MUM & DAD (2008)

MUM & DAD is the sickest movie ever to bear the BBC Films logo.

HOME-BASED dysfunction and horror go together like Norman Bates and Mother. The template made in PSYCHO (1960) has divided into two distinct, transatlantic lines; while Britain produced Freddie Francis’ MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY and Pete Walker’s FRIGHTMARE (1974), America's more influential variant came out of Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977). The family is problematic in horror because of repressed violence and sexuality; perhaps this is why US films are more powerful, as they concentrate on more overt, baroque situations, and also act in direct contradiction of the American Dream. Francis’ film - for example - has a more underlying, sardonic approach typical of British fare.

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY is the story of a wealthy family who live in an isolated, Victorian mansion. Their lives are devoted to acting out a fantasy from which they never go out of character, and rarely speak in any way other than baby talk. They are free from the divisiveness of growing up and puberty; even though “children” Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are in their twenties, they sleep in giant cribs and dress like sixth-formers. Sonny and Girly regularly seek out loners to bring back to their house to play “The Game”; when the “new friends” refuse, they are “sent to the angels.” One day, they kill a male prostitute (Michael Bryant)’s girlfriend (Imogen Hassall) and convince him that he was responsible. And after bringing him back to their house, he seduces each of the women and turns the family against itself. It’s a playful allegory of the breakdown of the nuclear family of the 1950s as a result of the free love movement of the 1960s, and has echoes of PEEPING TOM (1960) as Sonny films his killings for Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and Nanny (Pat Heywood), and even predates THE SHINING (1980)’s axe through the door and FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)’s cooking pot scene. But it’s a tedious affair hindered by weak casting: Bryant, in particular, is totally out of depth to convince that he has any sexual prowess to control the females.

HOLLYOAKS veteran Hannah Tointon plays a teenage daughter caught between bickering parents and murdering minors in THE CHILDREN.

Openly acknowledging its debts to MUMSY and FRIGHTMARE, Steven Sheil’s micro-budgeted MUM & DAD is the story of Heathrow Airport cleaner Lena (Olga Fedori), a Polish girl estranged from her family. She is befriended by chatty co-worker Birdie (Ainsley Howard) and her mute brother Elbie (Toby Alexander), and when Lena misses her last bus home, the Pole accompanies them to their nearby house - an undesirable suburban semi under the Heathrow flight pass - where she is drugged and chained. Birdie and Elbie’s parents - known only as Mum (Dido Miles) and Dad (Perry Benson) - abduct surrogate children who are forced to co-operate in thieving from airport luggage, and subject them to gruelling ordeals as they are forced into the deranged family unit.

MUM & DAD is a brave attempt at British Torture Porn under the shroud of Fred and Rosemary West, and works both as a study of the English underclass and as symbolic of the way Britain exploits foreign labour. Benson’s Dad is a beer-bellied, thick-spectacled, brutal letch, and the sight of his flabby, naked arse is only championed by what may well be cinema’s most disgusting masturbation scene involving a slab of bloody, unidentifiable meat. Miles is equally unsettling as the outwardly warm maternal figure, and Howard’s cheery performance adds another dimension to the depravity (though a secret, drooling child hidden on the top floor - perhaps Mum and Dad’s true offspring - is the most grimmest element).

“In a happy family you must always have rules.”

Tom Shankland’s THE CHILDREN also offers an off-kilter look at family life. Set in an isolated, (slightly) snowbound locale over a New Year family get-together, the children soon become sick and turn into killers; the smugness of the upper middle-class parents is slowly peeled away by their children’s alternate whining pleas for comfort and vicious attacks. While ostensibly well meaning and providing their kids with encouragement, the two sets of parents are too caught up in their own concerns to detect the problems with the increasingly broody children, and even when realisation finally hits, they still allow prejudices and assumptions to blind them.

The subgenre of monstrous minors never appeared onscreen until after World War II; strictly speaking, they arrive in the 1950s, following the displacement of so many children whose potential where uncertain. THE CHILDREN draws from a rich legacy of problem child cinema - THE VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and THE BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW (1971), to name only two - in exploring fears of innocence lost. Unlike these supernatural forebears, however, Shankland’s film is seated in the present’s fixation with illness and pandemics. The reason for the children’s behaviour is not explained - a virus is the most likely, and there is a playful reference to MMR jabs - and the dinner scene, where the tide turns, is an undoubted highlight. While the killings tend towards the OMEN-styled novelty variety (such as a lethal combination of toboggan and garden rake), they are nevertheless carried out with infectious, ghoulish glee.