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Twisted Nerve is a rather well made film about a psychopathic young man
regresses to an infantile, rage filled personality when stressed or
atracted to another person. Released in the United States in 1968 by
National General Pictures, the film was controversial for its suggested
between downs syndrome and psychopathology.
The film was a box office disapointment probally because it was marketed as an axe-killer psycho movie, which it is not. Although there are a few shocking scenes, this film is a character study of a person damaged by his herediary and his overly protective, seductive mother.
This film is nearly impossible to see if you didn't catch it in 1968. It was available from Thorn/Emi in Austraila, but I believe its OOP.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film sparked some controversy upon release in '68 because of some
psychobabble during the last third of the film where a doctor suggests
there may be a hereditary link between what was then known as mongolism
(Down's Syndrome) and psychotic/criminal behavior. However, outside of
little red herring, a fairly good story and performances can be found
The story revolves around a troubled rich young man named Martin Durnley (Bennett). Martin has an infantilizing mother and a mentally abusive father. For the duration of his life, Enid (his mum, played by Phyllis Calvert) has checked him for signs that he might not be "normal," like her institutionalized, mentally challenged son, whom she didn't bother giving a name to.
What we soon learn about Martin is that he is autistic (which is suggested later in the film) or that he is schizophrenic. He obviously has a split personality; of that, the viewer can be sure. This personality's name is Georgie Clifford, a soft-spoken six-year-old who befriends Susan Harper (Mills), a student/librarian. He befriends her after she bails him out of having charges pressed against him. You see, "Georgie" stole a rubber duck from a toy store. At the time, he says its for himself, but later, as Martin, he tells his mother that he wants to take it to his brother.
Martin's stepfather comes to the realization that this behavior has gone on far enough, and he offers to send Martin away (all expenses paid) to an around-the-world trip; he can either do that, or be thrown onto the street. Martin plays along with this for awhile, but then winds up at a boardinghouse, run by Susan and her mother, Joan (Billie Whitelaw, who won a British Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress). A couple of nights later, he returns to his old home and murders his stepfather with a pair of scissors. His presence there causes problems, and pretty soon Susan suggests that he should find another place to live. But wouldn't you know it, "Mr. Clifford" (Martin) calls the boardinghouse, saying that he wants to come and take Georgie on holiday.
While Susan travels to London to find out more about this mysterious stranger, her mother tries to seduce Georgie, which causes him to go mad and bury a hatchet in her head. Luckily, her lover, Gerry (Barry Foster) finds her corpse and calls the police, but not before George and Susan have a climactic fight, which culminates in him attempting to rape her, following by his "killing" Martin (he shoots his own reflection in the mirror).
After the police nab him, all that's left is Georgie. As he leaves a very traumatized Susan, we hear him in his cell (apparently at an asylum) singing her name in a singsong voice. The film ends, and Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho-esque" score plays in the background.
"Twisted Nerve" is a very good psychological drama, but because it is not politically correct (none of the characters ever use the term "mentally challenged" or even "Down's Syndrome." They simply opt for words like "mongol" and "mentally backward" to describe these people), it may not be liked by some audiences. Also, it doesn't help that it tries to link mental retardation with psychopathology. However, these obstacles aside, what the viewer has is a fairly good drama, with especially excellent performances by Hywel Bennett and Billie Whitelaw.
The film was doomed upon its release, because, controversy aside, it was marketed as an axe-killer slasher flick. There are only two killings, and one occurs with a hatchet, not an axe. Oh, well, so much for reviving the then-sagging career of ex-Disney starlet Mills...
"Twisted Nerve" is not rated, but contains violence, some sexual overtones, mature thematic elements, and some brief nudity and language.
Twisted Nerve is a rather well made film that deals with the
of a 21 year old man. His illness is "triggered" when he leaves his
home (a rich demanding father and infantilizing mother) to live as a
in the home of a college student (Haley Mills) and her mother (Billie
The film works especially well when his sexuality is aroused by both Haley Mills and Billie Whitelaw, with disastrous results.
The movie takes its time to unfold. Although it does have some shocking scenes, this film isn't your typical slasher/psycho movie, as the advertisements suggest, its much more than that.
Not at all bad. From an uneasy, start complete with voice-over to try
and mitigate the non PC nature of the main thread of the film, this
builds very nicely to a very decent climax. Hywell Bennet is most
effective as the young man who tries to break from his mother and
Hayley Mills surprisingly good playing against type.
If it hadn't been for the controversy surrounding the film regarding 'Mongols', she may have gone on to a much more interesting career. Good pacing and fleshed out secondary characters help to make this an absorbing psycho thriller, with some quite nasty moments and a splattering of blood.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Clearly this production stepped on some sensitive toes around the time of its release, as it opens with two separate statements one spoken and one written assuring us there's absolutely no scientifically proved evidence that there might be a link between Mongolism and criminal behavior. It's of course a very provocative and courageous assumption to revolve a psycho-thriller on, especially during the late 60's and even more so with the close-minded and easily offended board of censorship in Britain around that time. No wonder "Twisted Nerve" rapidly grew out to become a controversial and harshly hated gem that only just recently got put back into the spotlights, partly thanks to the fancy DVD-edition and partly because no less than Quentin Tarantino used the catchy and bone-chilling theme whistle song for his own already classic 2004 epic "Kill Bill". "Twisted Nerve" is definitely one of the most unique and original psycho-thrillers ever made; on par with that other legendary British cult-shocker "Peeping Tom" and easily several classes above all the rest in its genre. Martin is a young schizophrenic (or is he?) who obtains whatever he desires by posing (or actually being?) as Georgie; an intellectually underdeveloped but well-mannered and helpful boy. As the arrogant Martin, he's kicked out of the parental house by his dominant stepfather, but as the innocent Georgie he's taken in by the cherubic Susan and her mother who run a boarding house just outside of London. From inside this safe environment, Martin can plot a fiendish revenge against his stepfather and simultaneously become an essential part in the life of the unsuspecting Susan. The extremely intelligent script courtesy of Leo Marks and director Roy Boulting himself comes up with what is pretty much the perfect murder (even more waterproof than Alfred Hitchcock could ever come up with) and it's so courageously twisted and blunt that the film is guaranteed to appeal to fans of controversial cinema. Quite late in the film, there's a lecture about the connection between criminal tendencies and an "error" in the hereditary chromosomes' structure that will make you wonder how come an angry crowd of offended Brits didn't burn all existing copies on a big pile. There's more controversial stuff going on as well, like the suggestive sexual tension between a mature woman (Billie Whitelaw is a stupendous role) and the allegedly mentally handicapped boy, a demented showcasing of motherly love and even the dubious sexual preference of Martin's character itself. Martin slash Georgie is a pretty petrifying character, constantly altering his behavior between a dangerous delinquent and a handsome young lad with the intellectual capacities of a 6-year-old. Hywell Bennett's performance ranks amongst the best ones ever and the indescribably ravishing Hayley Mills is equally astonishing as Susan. There's very little graphic violence shown on screen, but in the case of this film it's definitely the uncanny ambiance and the carefully drawn characterizations that will cause the hairs in the back of your neck to rise.
In 1960, two respected British directors debuted shocking psychosexual
thrillers, to mixed critical and commercial receptions: Alfred
Hitchcock with 'Psycho,' and Michael Powell with 'Peeping Tom.' Both
films were shocking in their time, and their influence on low-budget
1960s horror can't be overstated. Roy Boulting's 'Twisted Nerve (1968)'
is a typical Hitchcock rip-off, but of the serious, stylish Brian De
Palma mould, rather than the schlocky comic-horror of William Castle.
The film introduces us to Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett), the younger
brother of a man suffering from "mongolism," the condition now known as
Down Syndrome. Though seemingly healthy a birth, it seems that young
Martin has developed some psychopathic, psychosexual tendencies,
inextricably linked to a chromosomal mismatch at conception. Martin
pretends to be mentally-challenged in order to get into bed with the
virginal Susan (Disney favourite Hayley Mills, later the director's
much-younger wife), only to instead capture the attentions of Susan's
lonely mother (Billie Whitelaw) did I mention this film was rather
Though the film treats its absurd, gloriously un-PC narrative with the utmost seriousness, it is nevertheless startlingly effective at capturing the main character's psychoses. Bennett's performance is menacing and pathetic in equal degree, playing a sort of introverted Alex DeLarge, whose wicked intentions are always bubbling beneath an otherwise honest exterior. 'Twisted Nerve' also features a maddeningly catchy musical theme, memorably recycled in Tarantino's 'Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2004),' composed by Bernard Hermann, who by this time was estranged from Hitchcock on account of his rejected score for 'Torn Curtain (1967).' Nevertheless, it's clear that Alfred Hitchcock himself both saw and enjoyed 'Twisted Nerve,' as he cast both Barry Foster and Billie Whitelaw in his own back-to-basics British shocker 'Frenzy (1972).' Due to controversy surrounding its depiction of Down Syndrome, the film opens with a spoken announcement that attempts to shirk responsibility for its political incorrectness, but without much luck. I probably wouldn't have it any other way.
A storm in a tea-cup is how to describe the glaring reputation formed
by this obviously influenced Hitchcok-like, British slow pot-boiler
psycho-thriller. At its core is a very daring, but questionable theme
(or better put taboo) that landed it in hot-water with the media when
released, as it opens with a disclaimer ruling out the scientific
connections between siblings of mongoloid children being linked to
criminal behavior. Well it must have been effective in some shape, as
that's one way to get your film noticed! Screenplay/writer Leo Marks
wouldn't be wet behind the ears to controversy, due to the fact he
wrote the story for chillingly sleazy 1960 'Peeping Tom' that saw
director Michael Powell's work getting heavily cut.
Martin Darnley is a coldly smart, but considerably nurtured and lonely young lad of a wealthy family that sees his mother smother him, while his domineering step-father wants to get rid of him and his mongoloid brother hospitalized. Assuming a false identity under Georgie; a nice, but mentally back-wards boy he meets a young lady Susan Harper who he takes a real shine too. Under certain circumstances and made-up stories he finds himself staying at a lodging house owned by Susan and her mother Joan.
Where it goes on to spark the interest and really builds around is the dark and unnerving psychological interplay of Martin (with a magnificently conniving and edgy performance by Hywel Bennett) manipulating and preying on the goodwill of others to adapt and form his new identity for ones own gain. The biting (if heavy-handed an absurd) material really does complement the calculative, random and moody ambiance, where it demonstrates a glassy sort of tension awaiting to break from the dramatic actions of the progressively plotted layout. This is more so character-based, than anything related to thrills. Bernard Herrmann's grandiosely sizzling score eerily caresses with the catching whistling rift by Bennett's character striking a cord. Director/writer Quentin Tarantino would sample the jarring whistle tune in 'Kill Bill Vol. 1'. Most of the suspense arose from Herrmann's masterful arrangement, than anything visually. Roy Boulting does an accomplished job directing, even with some stretched-out moments it remains curiously gripping throughout and the expressive camera-work takes shape to where it reaches its hysterical climax. The lovely ladies that appear are a terrific Haley Mills as Susan and Billie Whitelaw is absolutely great as her mother Joan. There's also a boisterous Barry Foster appearing as one of the lodgers.
Twisted Nerve doesn't seem to have a great reputation, and while the
film (like its lead character) certainly does have some problems, I
enjoyed this one in spite of them. The main problem people seem to have
with this film (so much so that the filmmakers actually had to tack on
an apology before the film starts!) stems from the fact that it seems
to be professing that siblings of mongoloid children were more likely
to become psychopaths. This idea is somewhat silly and I can see why it
would bother some people; but seriously, this is just a thriller and
while the idea is unlikely and misguided, it didn't bother me too much.
It also should be noted that 'nurture' plays a big part in the lead
character's mental health problems. The film focuses on Martin Durnley.
His mother treats him like a child, his stepfather dislikes him and his
mongoloid brother is institutionalised. He meets a young girl named
Susan Harper, who takes pity on him (or rather, his alternative
personality 'Georgie') after a shoplifting incident. But this soon
leads to obsession for the troubled young man...
If you go into this film expecting something deep or brilliant, you will be disappointed. As mentioned, the point that the film tries to make is not well imposed and not much else about the film has any depth. Still, as a thriller it works well. The main influence for the film is clearly Hitchcock's masterpiece 'Psycho' and the two share a lot in common. The central character is interesting for the fact that he's so strange. Hywel Bennett really succeeds in creating a character that is both bizarre and completely sinister. The supporting cast isn't as great in terms of performances, but the two leading ladies are much nicer to look at. Hayley Mills delivers the typical young British female lead, while Billie Whitelaw is the real standout for me as the young girl's mother. Twisted Nerve also features a memorable tune, and possibly takes influence from Fritz Lang's M as the lead character often whistles it. The film flows well throughout and delivers the intrigue from the character actions and the situation rather than through suspense. I can see why this film is not often hailed as a classic; but if you're looking for an interesting watch and don't care about some silly ideas, Twisted Nerve comes recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I came by this title by chance, but I definitely didn't end up regretting it. We all tend to have our own preferences when it comes to actors, but I don't think anyone could've chosen the leads better - Bennett's innocent looks serve nothing but to further add to the disturbing nature of the character he's portraying - the terror of Martin is that he could be anyone, the guy at school who's taken a liking into you, your next door neighbour, a cashier at the local shop - he's likable and cute and there's no way of telling his true intentions until it's too late. Laced with the perfect amount of nerve-wrecking music and unfolding the plot slowly and meticulously all the way up to the boiling point, I think anyone who fancies themselves a good thriller shouldn't miss on this one, especially with all the wonderful work that has been put into the character and plot development.
After a hilarious built-in apologia from the producers (who took heat in Britain for implying that siblings of Mongoloids may be dangerous), this thriller about an English boarding-house beset with a psychopathic young man gets more and more ridiculous. I felt a little sorry for esteemed British actress Billie Whitelaw here (forced to come onto pasty-faced man-child Hywel Bennett as if he were a simpleton stud). Brighter aspects are a good performance by Hayley Mills as the pretty librarian who is befriended by Bennett; a weird, wonderful score by Bernard Herrmann; as well as some fancy camera tricks and editing. The picture is hard to locate, but is it worth the search? For Hayley Mills addicts, yes. All others looking for a good 1960s screamer, perhaps not. It apes Alfred Hitchcock well enough...until the convoluted script falls completely apart in the final stretch. **1/2 from ****
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