NOT Available on DVD: ‘Twisted Nerve’

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In honor of Quentin Tarantino week here at WAMG, this column will tackle the 1968 British psycho-thriller TWISTED NERVE. A music highlight of Tarantino’s first KILL BILL film in 2003 occurs during the scene when Darryl Hannah’s eye-patched Elle Driver is walking down the hospital corridors intending to dispatch Uma Thurman and she’s whistling this haunting tune that is at the same time both childlike and threatening. Curious, I read the closing credits and the strange song was identified as the theme from the movie TWISTED NERVE composed by Bernard Herrmann. That title was familiar as I had its cool psychedelic U.S. one-sheet in my collection but I’d never seen the film and immediately became determined to track it down. I was able to secure a British PAL import of the film and was pleased to find TWISTED NERVE an excellent, nasty little forgotten thriller about a warped young psychopath. It’s also a film that had it’s own share of controversy for a couple of reasons upon it’s initial release in 1968 but for now, in the U.S. at least, it is NOT available on DVD.

TWISTED NERVE tells the story of wealthy but troubled teenager Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett) whose only friend is his Downs Syndrome-afflicted brother Peter whom he often visits at a special home. Martin’s father has died and his overbearing mother (Phyllis Calvert) is more focused on her new husband (Frank Finlay) whom Martin despises. At a toy store Martin is caught stealing a toy duck and detectives believe he and innocent stranger Susan (Hayley Mills) are shoplifting accomplices. Martin weasels his way out of the situation by pretending to be a retarded boy named Georgie, a ruse that he maintains as tries to get to know Susan better. Martin has a heated argument with his stepfather, who demands he enroll in a boarding school in Australia. Martin refuses, then leaves home, claiming to go to France. While still pretending to be the dim-witted Georgie, he rents a room in the home of Susan’s mother (Billie Whitelaw). The story unfolds with Martin’s scheming nature clashing against his longing to win Susan’s affection. He wants her love, but cannot reveal that he is in fact Martin, as he is worried she will reject him for his dishonesty. Meanwhile, Martin uses his new identity to seek out bloody revenge on his hated stepfather. This series of decisions leads to Martin’s self-destruction, resulting in murder and madness.
The late sixties were an interesting time for cinema as filmmakers attempted to reach adult audiences in more self-consciously bold ways and parts of TWISTED NERVE must have seemed daring and mature in 1968 (in the U.S. it was rated “M”). It’s insinuated that Susan’s mother is sleeping with her borders while Martin collects bodybuilding magazines and compares his own physique to the photographs within. In one scene we see him (implicitly) masturbating in front of a mirror which he has smashed in the center, thus blurring his and our view of his privates. TWISTED NERVE was directed and co-written by Roy Boulting. Roy and his producer twin brother John were English filmmakers well known for their popular series of satirical comedies in the 1950s and 1960s often starring Peter Sellers (1959’s I’M ALRIGHT JACK and 1970’s THERE’S A GIRL IN MY SOUP). TWISTED NERVE was their only horror effort and they created a very suspenseful film with excellent locations and cinematography that, at nearly two hours, is paced evenly with no scene feeling padded or unnecessary. The original screenplay is by Arthur Marx who had penned the stylistically similar PEEPING TOM for director Michael Powell four years earlier and his dialog here is equally clever and realistic. There are only two murders in the story but they each pack one hell of a punch. Boulting at times seems to be emulating Hitchcock with a real sense of paranoia and foreboding and one of the films greatest assets is of course its masterful score by composer Bernard Herrmann who had scored PSYCHO, VERTIGO, and other Hitchcock classics.
Hayley Mills is perfect as naive heroine Susan Harper, who is trapped right from the start into Martins’ evil web and seems unable, despite her educated background, to distinguish between the good and bad in people. Ms Mills was a young British actress with an impressive pedigree. She was the daughter of Oscar-winning actor John Mills (RYAN’S DAUGHTER) and playwright Mary Hayley Bell and the sister of actress Juliet Mills. Hayley was hugely popular as a child actress, starring in TIGER BAY and THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS as well as the Disney films POLLYANNA, THAT DARN CAT, and THE PARENT TRAP. She had been offered the title role in Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA in 1962 but legend has it Walt Disney himself intervened, not wanting to soil her wholesome image or his studios. Mills was 22 when she starred in TWISTED NERVE and performs a brief topless scene (she would do an even more explicit nude scene in the 1974 thriller DEADLY STRANGERS, another film MIA on DVD). This must have shocked 1968 audiences so comfortable with her innocent persona. (I mean it would be like Lindsay Lohan, who starred in the remake of THE PARENT TRAP, doing something today that was unwholesome like……oh never mind!). Even more scandalous, Ms Mills fell in love with 55 year old (!) director Boulting on the set of TWISTED NERVE and two years later they married (the marriage lasted five years and produced a son). Mills may have been top-billed due to her celebrity but the real star of TWISTED NERVE is Hywel Bennett who plays the baby-faced Martin with cold, unpredictable menace. Bennett owns the film from the very moment he first appears onscreen as he stands cheerlessly in the hospital grounds tossing a ball to his unseen brother. He is unnerving in the manner he worms his way into Susan’s life, keeping up his “Georgie” charade to ridiculous lengths and manipulating others to believe he is shy and wounded. Hywel Bennett had costarred along with Mills as a young couple forced into a shotgun marriage in Boulting’s THE FAMILY WAY in 1966 and remains active today in British television. Other standouts in the cast are Billie Whitelaw (best know as the evil nanny in 1976’s THE OMEN) as Susan’s slutty mother and Barry Foster (who would go on to play the necktie strangler in Hitchcock’s FRENZY in 1971) as one of her red herring tenants.
TWISTED NERVE stirred up some controversy during its initial release because of a scene where a doctor casually explains that Martin’s mental unbalance and violent tendencies are the result of being the brother of a Down’s Syndrome boy (!), then referred to as “mongolism”. For this reason the film starts off with a voiceover tacked-on by the producers at the last minute informing the audience that the science of the story they’re about to watch is not to be taken seriously. Perhaps this mini-scandal is the reason that TWISTED NERVE has never been available for home viewing in the U.S. Whatever one may think of its medical questionability and political incorrectness, TWISTED NERVE is a great thriller that has lost none of its shock value over the years. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino and his one-eyed KILL BILL hit-woman, I’ve rediscovered it and highly recommend seeking it out.

Hopeless film enthusiast; reborn comic book geek; artist; collector; cookie connoisseur; curious to no end


  1. Billy Lucas

    August 20, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I seen the movie in theaters, and have been a Hayley Mills fan all my life. I thought the movie was really great also. I cannot understand why this movie and Deadly Strangers, another British thriller have never been released on DVD. There's so much garbage out there on dvd, but quality little films like these two should have been released years ago. They finally released The Family Way, another excellent film with Bennett and Hayley Mills and directed by Roy Boulting. Maybe someday we will see this film and others released when the studios decide to release some of the better films on dvd that are missing.

  2. Scott MacDonough

    July 24, 2012 at 6:31 am

    I was so gratified to find that someone besides me holds Hayley Mills’ two thrillers from the late ’60s and early-70s, TWISTED NERVE and DEADLY STRANGERS, in such high esteem. To those two terrific thrillers, I’d like to add the equally obscure 1975 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ENDLESS NIGHT, a dreadful book but an amazing movie, directed by Sidney Gilliatt (sp?), scored by Bernard Herrmann, and reteaming Ms. Mills and Hywel Bennett for the third–and regrettably last–time. (They must have gone on well, since Ms. Mills chose Mr. Bennett as her son’s godsfather.) I sold excellent VHS prints of all three movies on ebay several years ago, and my customers loved them. Unfortunately, ebay suspended me for selling “unauthorized material”, thereby depriving my customers of access to many movies among my favorites but treated shabbily by their distributors.

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