May 23, 2007

TWISTED NERVE (1968) a tormented psycho-thriller

Twisted Nerve
(1968, UK)

Reviewed on Warner Bros PAL VHS

This film is recently famous for providing Daryl Hannah's 'whistling theme' in Kill Bill: Vol 1. But what's it actually about?

A tormented thriller that hinges on the mental state of Hywel Bennett’s character, Martin/Georgie. The textbook 'Psychopathia Sexualis' appears in one scene and presumably inspired/justified the story. It hit controversy even before its cinema release. A surly voiceover, tacked on at the start, reiterates that there's no proven link between Down's Syndrome and psychopathic behaviour, yet that's the whole basis of the plot.

A pity, because Martin could easily have been a conman, rather than anyone mentally ill. Because of his upbringing with his Down’s Syndrome brother, he successfully pretends to have an infant's mental age. He dupes his way into staying at Hayley Mills’ house, into her mother's affections and establishes an alibi for a darker purpose...

Carefully directed in a style reminiscent of Hitchcock, with slow, precise camerawork, there's even a masterful soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, near the end of his career. His delicate score evokes echoes of the quieter moments in Psycho. The original vinyl soundtrack for Twisted Nerve hasn't been re-released on CD and nowadays fetches high prices on eBay.

All the main characters are carefully drawn and well-written, progressively even, including a wry portrayal of an Indian student doctor, who has a running duel of words with a fellow lodger, parrying his casually racist table talk.

The film pushes the contemporary limits of taste by weaving sexual taboos into the mix, all supposedly elements of Martin’s illness. Unsubtle hints that he might be oedipal, gay, excessively masturbating, over-sexed... shows that the writer must have trotted through the chapter headings of the psychology book.

Besides misinforming the audience about the facts of Down's Syndrome, the more widespread then (and offensive now) terms of ‘mongol’ and ‘mongolism’ are used, dating the film terribly. After I'd watched the film on an old VHS release. I was very surprised that the film is about to be released on DVD in the UK in June (from Optimim DVD). Are they going to add extra disclaimers before the existing disclaimer?

Back in 1966, Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett had previously acted together in The Family Way, in very different roles playing a young married couple in a small village. After Twisted Nerve, Bennett later became famous as a comedy actor on the big screen (Percy) and the small (Shelley) and is still busy today in TV, though he’s barely recognisable from his baby-faced looks of the sixties.

Hayley Mills was successfully breaking away from her childhood Disney image (That Darn Cat, The Parent Trap) and here enjoys an adult role and sixties mini-skirts. She is currently a regular in TV's Wild at Heart.

Her mother is played by the always excellent Billie Whitelaw (the original 1976 Mrs Baylock in The Omen), who successfully juggles her maternal role with that of a sexually-active landlady.

Barry Foster, as the objectionably randy lodger, soon appeared in a psychotic role of his own in Alfred Hitchcock's vicious Frenzy (1972). The basic characterisation in that film wasn’t much different though. Foster had also co-starred with the two leads before, also in The Family Way.

In 1968, Frank Finlay was a big name in theatre. On the big screen, he was only doing bit parts in thrillers, or big parts in horrors (The Deadly Bees). Here he plays a brutish father-figure, a million miles from his witty, bumbling turn as the ever-hungry Porthos in Richard Lester's The Three (and Four) Musketeers (1973).

If you overlook the daft psychology, Bennett’s anguished performance still works well, and generates drama and suspense, amongst a top-grade cast, with a particular bonus from Billie Whitelaw’s complex performance.

It's not a script that could work nowadays, but it is a well-made thriller, and a fascinating glimpse into the attitudes and sexual preoccupations of the recent past. It's going to be interesting to see how the DVD is received. are already listing this for sale on DVD, here.

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  1. Sounds interesting. I wanna get this movie. I love old school thrillers :)

  2. I loved this film. I remember being blown away by Hayley Mills' performance, and, more than that, by her nudity - Here was sweet little Pollyanna, letting it all hang out! Awesome!

    Hywell Bennett was also excellent. While the script was silly (to say the least), at least the actors gave it there best.

  3. Quite simply, my favourite film of all time. Dvd comes without extras but the quality is superb. A .must have' purchase!