Roy Boulting, 1968
Starring: Hywel Bennett, Hayley Mills, Billie Whitelaw
“No puppet master pulls the strings on high
Proportioning our parts, the tinsel and the paint
A twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry,
Predestinates the sinner and the saint.”
—George Sylvester Viereck’s “Slaves”
A troubled young man, Martin, spies a pretty girl in a toy store while she’s making a purchase and he’s in the act of stealing a duck. Pretending to be mentally challenged, he gets away with a minor complaint against him and the girl, Susan, a librarian studying to become a teacher, takes pity on him. This leads to a dangerous infatuation with Susan, who comes to know him as “Georgie”; he goes so far as to get himself invited to live at the boarding house run by Susan’s mother. Martin’s brother Pete, who lives in an asylum, is actually handicapped and it is their family that seems to somehow be the root cause of Martin’s own disturbance; his anxious mother and domineering stepfather certainly don’t help matters. These tensions, combined with his fixation on Susan, lead him down a dark and violent path...
What the actual hell? Twisted Nerve has what is probably the most insane premise out of all the British young psycho killer films (with the possible exception of the far more brutal Night Must Fall, though that film begins far more conventionally); at minimum, Twisted Nerve definitely has the most tasteless premise. It certainly couldn’t be made today and even though this is likely to offend someone, somewhere, I can’t help but love the sheer cheek of it. Directed by the somewhat unknown Roy Boulting — of films like Design for Murder and There’s a Girl in My Soup, though he’s perhaps best known for producing his brother John’s absolutely amazing British noir Brighton Rock (1947) — he does a solid job building suspense here.
But the film absolutely belongs to British television fixture Hywel Bennett, whose performance as Martin/Georgie is nearly able to overcome some of the film’s issues. In particular, his facial control is unforgettable, and much of his subdued, almost sedate performance lies in subtle changes of expression that indicate whether he’s still Martin or has switched into Georgie. Often this happens without a moment’s notice. And if it wasn’t enough that he’s pretending to have some sort of mental disorder out of boredom (and barely masked psychopathy), the film also pushes the limits of sexual content with some scenes of male nudity and implied masturbation. Martin seems to have body dysmorphic disorder, or at least some very serious sexual issues, akin to those of Peeping Tom.
An obvious precursor to this film, Peeping Tom’s screenwriter, the wonderful Leo Marks, also penned Twisted Nerve. Disturbingly, the title is taken from the above quoted poem by a fascinating but basically forgotten figure, George Viereck, a German-born writer. Viereck emigrated to the United States in the 1890s (around the same time as my own family, as a random side note of absolutely no interest to anyone but myself), where he developed a reputation as a poet — curiously one with homoerotic themes, which also appear in Twisted Nerve. As his writing career grew, thanks to some work in the fields of psychoanalysis and science, he met and developed relationships with everyone from Tesla to Hitler, and even Aleister Crowley. But Viereck was a staunch supporter of Hitler and eventually landed himself in prison in the US for his vigorous support of Nazism. He doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Twisted Nerve, but was too fascinating for me not to at least mention, and I can’t help but wonder if the well-read Marks — himself a veteran of the espionage and code-breaking fields during WWII — used Viereck as something of an inspiration for Martin.
It’s also a bit unfair to just rest the complete success of the film at the feet of either Marks or Bennett, as there’s a great supporting cast, which includes a number of established stage actors who also made appearances in genre films, such as Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) as Susan’s mother, Frank Finlay (The Deadly Bees) as Martin’s stepfather, and the delightful Barry Foster (Frenzy) as a lascivious tenant, whose side role is my favorite thing about the film. He's so wonderful that it's almost unfair to the other actors. It’s weird for me to see Hayley Mills in a horror movie — I’m familiar with her solely because of the Disney Channel’s incessant screening of The Parent Trap when I was a kid — but she’s very well used here in the sort of wide-eyed, well-meaning innocent role that pops up in a lot of these types of films. She begins to get wise to "Georgie," which at least elevates her a bit from the hapless victim type that Hammer couldn't get away from during this period.
Twisted Nerve comes recommended, though it’s probably not quite what you’d expect, unless you've seen a lot of these English psychopath films. There are a few murders — Martin uses his sudden lack of fixed identity and new residence to provide him with an alibi — though they are relatively bloodless or occur off-screen. The most famous thing about the film is actually the Bernard Herrmann score, which has one of the single most punishing songs in any horror film, though it should come as no surprise that Herrmann turns it into a compelling and oddly flexible theme that repeats throughout the film in several different ways; you’ll also probably recognize it from Kill Bill. Pick Twisted Nerve up on DVD. It’s got nothing on Straight on Till Morning, but really, what has?