“No puppetmaster pulls the strings on high, But a twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry, Predestinates the sinner or the saint.”
The above is a seemingly innocuous quote from a seemingly innocuous poet- who may be Keats, but may just as likely be screenwriter Leo Marks. Yet, when viewed in the context of the film in question, those very words echo and recall the furore and brouhaha caused by no less a milestone in British cinema than the preceding decade’s Peeping Tom (1959) – which the very same man was partially responsible for.
Strange to think that a relatively unknown (to the public at large) writer could be the man behind two controversies nearly a decade apart. So what exactly were the film-going public (and the critics) up in arms about in the summer of ’68? Nudity? Well, OK, maybe some, but male, and more buttocks than anything else. Bad language? Not that much. Comedy racism? That would have been par for the course then. Blood and gore? Surprisingly little.
No, what made this particular British horror movie- now considered legendary in its own right and receiving a second life due to its Bernard Herrmann-penned theme tune being appropriated by Tarantino for Daryl Hannah’s character in Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003)- so much of a cause celebre was its central premise- that a man related to (in this case, the younger brother of) a mongoloid, or Downes Syndrome sufferer to use the proper terminology, is capable of being a psychopath, sociopath and a murderer. Not only that, but able to split willingly into one of two personalities whenever it suits him. And all because, due to a defect gained at birth, it was predestined. Hardly an optimistic viewpoint, is it- “sorry son, you may be wearing the latest Carnaby threads, but you’re going to end up quadraspazzed in a loony bin” They’d be up in arms about such a concept today, which may be why it took the film so long to secure its DVD release (although rights issues may well be at the heart of the matter)
It’s difficult to tell what offended everybody more, especially back in decidedly un-PC ’68- was it the inference that if a mongoloid’s brother is a killer, then he himself could be capable of all sorts of unpleasantness, or was it the idea (which would negate half of medical science) that, as demonstrated by Russell Napier’s professor late on in the proceedings, ‘normal’ people have one type of chromosome, and anyone else who doesn’t is destined to be a mentalist? Was it even the concept of ‘predestination’ itself, which is tantamount to saying we have no choice as to our actions and therefore criminality can be excused thus? To my mind, it was probably a mixture of all three, but whereas today’s objections would come from the more “right-on” sectors of society, back then it was very much the moral majority who took umbrage- including of course (allegedly) esteemed critic Dilys Powell, proving once again that her outright condemnation of any film was a guarantee of its quality.
Because Twisted Nerve is a great film. Misguided it may be in the very basis behind its construction, but that doesn’t deter one iota from its superb cinematography, excellent dialogue (the aforementioned segment notwithstanding), its beautifully executed sense of paranoia and foreboding, or the way in which it successfully captures the transition of suburban London (in this case the actual Mills family home in Twickenham) from the brown-hued, almost bookish colour scheme of old to its new-found psychedelic trappings, something which Jack Clayton’s Our Mother’s House had hinted at the previous year and Losey’s Secret Ceremony concurrently tapped into. And most of all, the flawless performances from all actors involved.
Hayley Mills, who would in 1971 marry director Boulting (some 33 years her senior), is perfect as guileless heroine Susan Harper, who is ensnared right from the start into the killer’s evil web when she is accused of helping him steal a toy duck from a department store (“Georgie likes ducks” being the infamous quote) and seems unable, despite a background in academia and librarianship, to distinguish between the good and bad in people- even in her own boyfriend, who seems uninterested in her in any other sense than as a sex object to place in his flashy car. Her trusting nature allows the film’s events to happen, but at the same time her concern for others proves ultimately her saving grace.
Barry Foster, as drunken, embittered, largely unemployed horror writer/lodger Gerry Henderson, a man with a neat line in political incorrectness and intolerance (“you can’t really talk to ‘em, can yer? No sense of ‘umour, you see!!”), is more sympathetic than dislikeable, in no small part due to the humanity he brings to even the most insulting dialogue, more often than not aimed at fellow boarder Shashi (Salman Peerzada), an educated Indian doctor who finds Foster’s prejudice more amusing than annoying, and who delights in rebuking such jibes by explaining that Tarzan, an English lord by birth, liked nothing more than to “swing through trees with a bunch of apes” One can’t help wondering what the Guardian brigade would make of such proclamations in 2008, although in Marks and Boulting’s defence, the bigot is generally the one who comes off worst (and indeed, has to turn in the end to the object of his scorn for help in a crisis)
Billie Whitelaw is a revelation as Mills’ sex-deprived, near-menopausal mother (there is an inference that she and Foster have been sharing occasional ‘arrangements’ with regard to his rent, but it’s left pretty much to the viewer’s imagination), oozing frustrated, womanly sensuality in much the same way as Susannah York would go on to do in Images (1972) and The Shout (1977) and setting a precedent for 40-something Brit sexbombs that carries on today, the most recent example being Helena Bonham Carter’s sultry Widow Lovett in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007), although it’s patently obvious that she is only 14 years older than Mills, something which creates another (if minor) credibility gap. Timothy West is a suitably grumpy police inspector, who gets one of the two best lines of dialogue in the whole film (“Watch it, this bloke’s a nutter “) – the other being “Sphericals!”, Foster’s concise description of ‘bleeding heart’ sympathies shown towards the criminal element. And in a brief cameo, Thorley Waters is his usual fusty, professorly self. But the film undoubtedly belongs head and shoulders to its true star, Hywel Bennett. Mills may have been top-billed due to her pop celebrity post-Parent Trap and her romantic association with Boulting, but this is Bennett’s movie through and through. He owns it from the very moment he first appears onscreen- less than a minute in, as he stands gloomily in hospital grounds throwing a ball to his mostly unseen brother.
His primary character, Martin Durnley, is a visibly troubled young man- the archetypal ‘baby faced killer’, who although blessed with stunning good looks and a dress sense somewhere between Brian Jones and Scott Walker, seemingly has no friends, no social skills and is prone to spending hours in his room alone rocking back and forth on a chair cradling toys and listening to jazz. He also has a questionable penchant for collecting bodybuilding magazines and comparing his own physique to the photographs within, obviously a major bone of contention as in one scene we see him (implicitly) masturbating in front of a mirror which he has smashed in the middle, thus blurring his and our view of his genitalia.
In the role of his stepfather (the absence of his biological father being another hint at the film’s almost cod-Freudian approach to psychology), Frank Finlay has the thankless task of attempting to ‘do something’ with the wayward Martin, which, given the era in question, amounts to little more than the usual practice of sending him off to Australia to sheep-farm- something Bennett refuses patently to do, but pretends to acquiesce to when he sees what a convenient subterfuge it will provide him with. Phyllis Calvert, as the boy’s neurotic mother, is Finlay’s other worry: torn as he is between attempting to curb her more emotional excesses (such as treating her son like a baby and almost obsessively checking him for signs of ‘abnormality’) and seem like a sensitive, doting husband, he ends up coming across as cold, unsympathetic and businessmanlike: and indeed, it is this side of him which leads to his demise, when he returns from some kind of executive dinner and Martin offs him in the garage with a pair of scissors.
Of course, the obsessive, mollycoddling treatment exhibited by the mother, although intended to counteract any emergent difficulties in her offspring, could be seen to be the root cause of Martin’s other problem, his retarded alter-ego Georgie. We first see Georgie in the department store scene mentioned earlier: as store manager Robin Parkinson interrogates Mills and Bennett, whom he believes to be a couple pulling some sort of scam but in truth have never even met, he suddenly becomes aware that the young man he’s talking to is not of adult mental age, and quickly withdraws his allegation, allowing Mills to pay for the ‘stolen’ duck and therefore drawing Susan to Georgie for the first time, beginning a series of steps via which he moves into first her sympathies, then her affections, then her house and even her mother’s bed. This is obviously a deliberate act on his part, but, the question remains, how much of the dual identity itself is deliberate?
“Georgie” is a seemingly vulnerable child-man who would have been referred to in those days as “simple” or “a bit backward”, an adult with a mental age of maybe eight or nine. “Martin” is a disturbed and unhappy yet fully articulate young man, with an obvious hatred and disregard for people in general (not uncommon in 1960s films, really) and capable of the most stunning malice aforethought (ironically, the name of a TV serial which Bennett would later star in as a man wrongly accused of murder). For a start, he arrives at Susan’s house as Georgie, with a handwritten note that purports to be from his father, asking for him to be looked after whilst his patriarch is abroad- which is of course where he should be and where his own family think he is. This much he planned as Martin, even to the point of having the concierge of his hotel construct an alibi. But the minute he ‘becomes’ Georgie, however premeditated his original intent had been, what we see onscreen is less like pretence and more like possession.
Except of course it isn’t, because as we see, he slips out in the night, as Martin once again, to kill his father. And maybe this, rather than any difficulty with the medical concept, is the heart of the problem where the film is concerned for some viewers. How can he chop and change so easily from one incarnation to another, when it seems that one of them, whilst mentally weaker, actually holds a stronger grip? And if he is, as his mother believes, ‘abnormal’ due to his sibling relationship with his sick brother, then how can any of his actions, either as Georgie or the relatively compos-mentis Martin, be his own choice? This is where the script lets itself down, as these questions are never fully explored. Obviously in any great film there’s room for multilayered interpretation, particularly in the psychotropic movies of this era, but in some respects it seems almost as if Marks and Boulting have left us with a partially-filled canvas where we are expected to complete the picture ourselves.
On a slightly more worrying note, if Georgie is the real person and Martin is the alter-ego, then what are we to make of Whitelaw’s obvious attraction towards him, the fact that he climbs into her bed because he ‘needs his Mum’, or the (now infamous) scene in which, naked, he tries it on with Mills? Wasn’t this his whole reason for approaching her in the first place? On the other hand, maybe it’s because Bennett is such a fantastic actor that we never fathom Martin/ Georgie out. Although he would go on to achieve his ultimate recognition as jaded, cynical diatribing sitcom hero Shelley (1979-92) and terrify a later generation as ubergangster Jack Dalton in Eastenders (the Brit horror star’s graveyard), this film is his absolute tour de force.
There’s always been something disquieting about angelic young boys in horror films- or indeed films per se- and Georgie is no exception: with his smiling, almost rodent-like features, he worms, smarms and giggles his way into your subconscious. The random moments- such as bursting into cackling laughter and declaring “Batman is a fat man!!” during a breakfast table discussion about comic books, or mounting and repeatedly whipping a rocking horse in the nursery whilst informing Susan that “Georgie always wins” are genius touches, obviously on the part of the scriptwriter, but also largely due to Bennett’s frighteningly convincing performance, and are capable of leaving the viewer agog in sheer disbelief at the implied evil within.
In the final reel, by which time Mills has heard the full story from Calvert and everyone else has finally worked out that he might be ‘up to something’, he goes totally tonto, his twin personalities melding, cracking and flowing in and out of each other almost like a predigistator of Red Dwarf’s character ‘Legion’, imprisons his quarry in her bedroom and makes her don a wedding dress, explaining not what he wants to do to her, but exactly what he wants her to do to him.
Here, Boulting does something I have only seen once elsewhere- during, of all things, a live Rush video- and completely blocks out the dialogue with music, leaving us to wonder just what he is saying that is so horrible it defies description. Whatever it is, Mills assures Bennett that if he asked, no, she definitely wouldn’t laugh- and frankly, nor would I in her situation, I’d be bloody terrified.
The above has led some (misinformed) people to suggest that Martin’s obsession with muscle magazines, his hatred of his own form in the mirror, and his retreat into ‘Georgie’ (this is the bit where the theory falls down by the way folks, there’s absolutely no logic to it whatsoever) is actually a veil for latent or denied homosexuality- and that what he suggests to Susan is that she penetrate him in some way. Personally, I see no alternative sexual orientation, unless one is to count that of a deranged psychopath or, more worryingly, an overgrown child. For this reason, the actor is probably the most terrifying during this one scene that he has ever been at any stage in his career, even outdoing his personification of sliminess in Karaoke (1995). Respite luckily comes soon in the form of the actual film’s conclusion, of which of course I shall say nothing.
Whichever angle one comes at Twisted Nerve from, its power cannot be denied or ignored. Whatever one may think of the flimsiness and medical questionability of its central tenet, it still packs one hell of a punch. That said, for a film of such import, it is admittedly very slow- and maybe slightly overlong at 105 minutes. The first murder (of only two) doesn’t even occur until halfway through, and the first actual horror inherent in the story only manifests itself, visually or otherwise, a short time before that.
Anyone- ie the majority of 2000s youth- expecting non-stop excitement and bloodletting (the deaths are surprisingly unvisceral for a film with such an unpleasant theme) would be advised to look elsewhere. What we do get is a beautifully restrained and underplayed exercise in slow-burning Hitchcockian dynamics, although in no way is the film derivative of the great man, bearing as it does more resemblance to the interpersonal dramas inherent at the time in both Italian and Spanish cinema, and the kitchen sink drama that shaped Britain’s aesthetic throughout most of the 1960s- indeed, the very same social realist style that had first brought Mills, Bennett and the Boultings together in The Family Way (1966). This attitude is prevalent in most aspects of Twisted Nerve from the camerawork and decor down to the themes of race and social background explored by Foster, Peerzada and housekeeper Clarkie (Gretchen Franklin) who even manages a pre-Ethel malapropism here by referring to the unnamed killer in the papers as ”one of them psychoprats“. Talk about setting the tone for your entire career…
As we noted earlier, Twisted Nerve caused more uproar at the time than any other British film (with the possible exception of The Party’s Over, which was largely unseen) since its Michael Powell-directed antecedent, which may be viewed as the original and definitive baby faced killer picture. But that didn’t stop audiences flocking to it the way that they sadly hadn’t for Tom, nor did it prevent Hywel and Hayley- the swinging era’s very own Karl and Anna- from a further horror-themed collaboration in Sydney Gilliat’s Endless Night (1971), which repeated the success of its predecessor. Of course, everything is relative to its own context, and not having been around in 1968, (or if we were, being too young to be actively viewing x-certificated movies) viewers of our generation cannot possibly have felt the impact this film made back in ’68. For us, the shock comes from the incongruity of seeing a man we knew better as a loveable layabout in an ITV sitcom brandishing a knife, giggling inanely, and killing people- an incongruity which no doubt the previous generation feels in reverse.
Despite its “difficult” subject matter (although I’ve yet to meet anyone who found it actually offensive, so the difficulty may only exist, as is often the case, in the reality-detached minds of the PC brigade) the film is still evidently a popular and highly-regarded one- hence not only its aforementioned referencing by Tarantino, but also The Damned naming a song after it on their ‘Black Album’ as far back as 1982, and that popularity was finally vindicated in 2008 when Optimum released it on DVD. So you now have little excuse for not attempting to see this quite remarkable film. One small caveat though: don’t show it to your groovy, right-on, Guardian-reading social worker girlfriend, especially not early on in the relationship.