To be approached with caution and foreknowledge, Roy Boulting’s 1968 thriller has a chequered past. In the wake of Psycho, many films used the veneer of scientific knowledge as a basis for lurid tales; this story of a sociopath played by Hywel Bennett makes unfortunate use of the condition of real-life medical conditions as a sinister plot point, and even though there’s a disclaimer at the start, it’s an unsavoury notion that has led to the film being consigned to the dustbin of history. It doesn’t help that the condition is referred to as Mongolism in dialogue, but Twisted Nerve does have more to offer than out-dated attitudes.
The key issue here is that Martin (Bennett) has a brother with learning difficulties, and has developed a second personality in which he fakes disability as Georgie, referred to as a ‘halfwit’ by other characters. With his own family kicking him out into the street, Martin/Georgie latches onto local librarian Susan (Hayley Mills), who takes pity on him. Martin/Georgie inveigles his way into her home, a guest-house presided over by Billie Whitelaw, and with guests including Barry Foster. Hitchcock saw this film and cast Foster and Whitelaw in his next film, Frenzy, and there’s a few scenes which recall the work of the master of suspense. And Bernard Herrmann’s score, with its insistent whistling sound, was lifted by Tarantino for his Kill Bill films; for a film in disrepute, Twisted Nerve has a bigger influence than might be expected.
Many films from the 1960’s contain dated attitudes, but Twisted Nerve’s portrayal of Martin/Georgie has someone who exploits our humanity for his own calculated gain puts a real edge on proceedings here. The film would be better without referencing real-life medical matters, but removing them altogether would leave it unclear why Martin/Georgie has been able to adopt his cruel, exploitative attitude. There’s a shoe-horned-in scene in which a doctor explains that Martin/Georgie’s behaviour is not connected to his brother’s condition, but the title, and the republishing of the poem that contains it in the opening credits, suggest that the film-makers want to have their cake and eat it. Boulting regretted the strategy, and his error of judgement means that Twisted Nerve requires considerable background to explain why it’s not for the impressionable.
All that said, this is a tricky, well-put together film that makes good on a simple ‘girl in peril’ premise. Bennett and Mills both give good performances, and there’s great little bits from Timothy West as a copper and Salmann Peer as another guest-house resident who argues back on racist attitudes. The grim picture of British life is carefully built-up, and even if Twisted Nerve has glaring faults, it deserves to be considered within the mores of the time, which are depicted in all their primitive fearfulness here.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this film.