Twisted Nerve (1968 United Kingdom)

I’ve reviewed quite a few movies from that year of our Lord, 1968. A disquieting year for a number of reasons…Twisted Nerve, something of a link between Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and Hitchcock’s “Frenzy”, has floated about like an apparition for so long it’s somehow managed to permeate the most seemingly unconnected crannies of pop culture. Its main theme, a haunting melody penned by legendary Hitchcock scorer Bernard Herrmann, was stolen by Hollywood’s pet magpie, Q Tarantino, for “Kill Bill, Vol 1”. Penned by celebrated “Peeping Tom” scribe Leo Marks, this is a fairly typical late-1960s psycho-thriller.

Hywel Bennett is Martin Durnley, a rich but damaged Oxford University drop-out with a mutual hatred of his banker stepfather, played by Frank Finlay. His pathetic mum, Phyllis Calvert, babies the boy – a consequence of Martin’s elder brother, a Down Syndrome sufferer (or ‘Mongoloid’  as they used to say), being in full-time care. The doctors have warned Martin’s parents not to have any more children – just to be on the safe side. Too late: daddy slipped another one past the goalie and troubled mummy’s boy Martin is the result.

With his cuddly toys and penchant for smashing his own reflection, he definitely proves the doctors misgivings. Kicked out of his family home by Finlay, Martin adopts a childlike alter-ego named ‘Georgie’ in order to ingratiate his way into the affections and boarding house of pretty librarian Susan Harper (Mills, about as sexy here as cold rice pudding) and her saucy mum Joan (Whitelaw – who partially makes up for her daughter’s lack of sexiness).

Safely ensconced in the family boarding house and claiming his father’s away on business, Bennett takes this opportunity to visit a certain person from his past, wielding a pair of scissors, in the dead of night. Marks’ fingerprints are all over this one: the initial resemblance to Peeping Tom is striking. Both films feature quiet, isolated psychopaths who hate their fathers; both Peeping Tom’s Mark and Twisted Nerve’s Martin end up at a boarding house, encountering young girls with absent fathers who live with their mothers.

But its never enjoyed the critical reappraisal and patronage latterly afforded Marks’ earlier work. Other than Herrmann’s superb score – it’s easy to see why Twisted Nerve has acquired such a cult status. The Boultings made their name producing and directing respectable fare like 1966’s The Family Way (also starring Mills and Bennett) before chancing their arm at the exploitation bazaar. Twisted Nerve summoned up a storm the likes of which Marks had encountered before, during the furore over Powell’s bedevilled masterpiece six years earlier.

For it implies (quite sneakily) that otherwise healthy siblings of Down Syndrome sufferers , may, due to “some error in the chromosome structure,” also be prone to hereditary mental abnormality. Such as homicidal mania. Cue howls of protest from disability rights groups – prompting a hastily tacked-on narrated disclaimer. When your movie mischievously plays fast and loose with scientific orthodoxy for exploitation purposes, you can hardly object when you’re summarily hauled before the twin arbiters of political correctness and good taste. Aside from that little matter, Twisted Nerve is a tad overlong and cruel. Its also very sad.

Given the era in which it was produced, it also lends voice to some outrageous sexism, mostly from cheeky chappy Barry Foster, who plays a randy lodger. If Marks’ darkly satirical aim was to highlight bigotry in all its manifestations – and wrong-footed attitudes towards disability in particular – he surely succeeded, but nevertheless was playing a muddled, dangerous game. The real winner of Twisted Nerve was Alfred Hitchcock. He poached both Whitelaw and Foster for 1972’s Frenzy, a more mature psycho-killer thriller. That said, Bennett is excellent as the gleefully deranged Martin, while Whitelaw even won a 1969 BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. And Twisted Nerve is often a funny yet pleasantly dated time capsule.

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Comments

  1. Excellent review! ‘Twisted Nerve’ is definitely one of those films that offends on almost all fronts, but I agree it’s worth the watch at least once to see where the Kill Bill whistle came from (and for unintentional comedy gold in parts!).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As always, I appreciate your positive comments! 🙂

    Like

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