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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.
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.
*** 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.
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 ***
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.
When I watched Twisted Nerve I wasn't aware of its controversial
reputation and that it was quite a difficult film to get hold of. I was
a little surprised to discover both those facts to be honest. The
controversy that it caused in its day was due to the genetic theory put
forward that siblings of Down's syndrome children are predisposed to
criminal behaviour. The main character in the film suggesting that this
theory to be true. I can see the offence that could cause but at the
end of the day this is a thriller and not really to be taken very
seriously. I have seen lots of murder-mystery's where the culprit is
unmasked and their actions are explained by some ridiculous
pseudo-science. And I think that is what needs to happen with Twisted
Nerve take it with a pinch of salt. As far as it being hard to get
hold of and not seen by many I have even noticed it appear on a
public domain collection that is even more surprising because this is
a pretty solid thriller with a lot of good things about it. It doesn't
exactly break the mould but it is still very good.
It centres on a young rich layabout called Martin who is molly-coddled by his mother but disliked by his step-father. The feeling is mutual though and Martin is forced to leave home but with murderous intent. He adopts the persona of Georgie a boy with the mental age of a child in order to dupe his way into the boarding house of a girl he is obsessed with and to enact his deadly scheme.
There's a pretty good cast in this one. Hywel Bennett is very good in the central role of Martin/Georgie. It's a character that requires a fair bit of range from cold psychopath to wide-eyed innocent. Bennett delivers the goods though and ensures that we believe in his character. Hayley Mills plays the girl he lusts after; she is good in the role and cute as a button. The cast is rounded out with a couple of strong performers. Billie Whitelaw is Mill's mother, who is a lost soul who takes in extra money by sleeping with the guests, one of which is played by Barry Foster, an obnoxious fellow not a million miles away from the character he would play in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. In fact the film as a whole owes a fair bit to Hitchcock itself, especially Psycho but also the likes of Marnie. Its emphasis on the psychological but with moments of violence and suspense certainly puts it in the Hitchcockian ball-park. Another similarity is the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack. In this one he once again shows he has an ear for the eerie with the disquieting main whistling theme which is very distinctive indeed. It was unsurprisingly and tediously stolen by Quentin 'I've seen lots of films and I want you to know about it' Tarantino for Kill Bill Vol.1.
I guess you would have to classify Twisted Nerve as a cult movie. One that seems to operate under the radar and one that is well worth checking out if you enjoy psychological thrillers.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The story revolves around a psychotic personality that developed
because of a lack of ability to deal with sexual maturity. As is
normal, this personality is exceptionally manipulative & willing to
play things to the end to get what they want. A great scene showing
this is when he "goes to Paris" & shows Hayley's mother the note he's
written to gain entrance to the house. They originally refuse him &
send him back into the rain so he walks slowly away giving the guilt he
knows will bother them time to work all the while appearing to be a
gentleman & unwilling to put them out.
This is a good suspense movie even though the director is careful to show the rising tide of evil & doesn't give any misdirection to fool the viewer. We know what is going to happen before it happens & it doesn't really matter. The tide of evil comes on almost like a gentle ocean tide; you're in it before you notice the beach is gone.
The term special needs, doesn't really play out here, as it didn't exist at that time. Special Ed. perhaps but this doesn't involve education. It is as the book title in the movie said, 'Psychopathia Sexualis' which doesn't necessarily require what we term today special needs as a spawning ground. It's the inability to deal with sexual maturation that drives this movie. Other movies that deal with this subject are Black Swan of 2010 & perhaps the best known, Repulsion by Roman Polanski (1965) from the UK also. Twisted Nerve is about the male end of the story while the other two deal with this psychosis & dual personality on the female end. Strangely or perhaps obviously the two female centered movies deal with the opposite ends of one mental health strata that being the "does harm to others" end the other is "does harm to self". Repulsion deals with "does harm to others" while Black Swan deals with "does harm to self".
Hywel Bennett is very good here as the troubled soul & Hayley Mills comes across as a full blown young adult (with boobs). I'm going to have to check on Hywel Bennett at IMDb as I'm totally unaware of him. While no role here is complicated except for Bennett's they are all competently portrayed. Heck I like this movie better as I type. It's not an Oscar contender but it is a couple of steps above the norm. I'll say "An enjoyable ride."
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