Friday, October 14, 2011

Twisted Nerve (1968)

Directed by:
Roy Boulting

Entertaining, well-acted, well-made psycho-thriller; this didn't make much of an impact at the box office back during its day and would be the only genre release from the fledgling Charter Film Productions (who cranked out a couple of comedies after this and then folded). The film was actually somewhat controversial upon release for what some felt was an irresponsible attempt to link mongolism (a condition we now refer to as Down's Syndrome) with psychopathic and criminal behavior. To counteract that, the film had a disclaimer ("Ladies and gentlemen, in view of the controversy already aroused, the producers of this film wish to reemphasize what is already stated in the film; that there is no established scientific connection between mongolism and psychotic or ciminal behavior.") spoken by a stuffy-sounding man tacked to the beginning. Aside from the scientific nonsense; which really only comes into play briefly at the end, doesn't amount to much of anything anyway and can easily just be overlooked, plus the fact the film isn't particularly well-known and underperformed at the box office, it would go on to become an influential effort in some rather surprising ways.

Twenty-two-year-old Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett) lives at home with his overly nurturing mother (Phyllis Calvert) and his stern, wealthy stepfather (Frank Finlay). Since all of his siblings suffered from "mongolism" and Martin was born "normal," his mother has been a bit smothering over the years and managed to seriously spoil her son in the process. However, Martin's stepfather wants him to get out and begin his life independently of them; especially seeing how Martin doesn't do much but sit upstairs listening to records and is frequently getting in trouble with the law. While out shoplifting, Martin is caught by the police. He gives them a false name ("Georgie Clifford") and pretends to be mentally retarded. Pretty, sweet Susan (Hayley Mills), a student who works as a librarian, sympathizes with "Georgie" and helps get him off the hook, but when Martin returns home and his stepfather gets wind of what took place, he gives Martin some money and tells him he has to move out.

Martin then decides to adapt the "Georgie" persona and wedge himself into Susan's life. Susan is temporarily staying with her lonely mother Joan (Billie Whitelaw) while she completes her studies. Joan owns a boarding house and has already rented out rooms to Gerry (Barry Foster), an abrasive alcoholic struggling to get by in the film industry (who's also Joan's lover), and Shashie (Salmaan Peerzada), an Indian medical student. One evening, "Georgie" shows up with a forged letter from his father asking them to take him in while he's out of town on business. They're reluctant at first, but since he seems relatively harmless and soon proves to be a big help doing various chores around the home, Joan soon takes a liking to him. It isn't long before "Georgie" sneaks off to murder his stepfather and his true intentions for Susan begin to surface. Sensing there's more to their new boarder than meets the eye (and finding a handwriting book with the name Martin Durnley written over and over again inside), Susan investigates.

Despite running nearly two hours, this has no problem maintaining interest. It's helped along by very good performances, an interesting screenplay (written by the director and PEEPING TOM scripter Leo Marks) and solid production values. Bennett does an effective job as the psycho (a showy, edgy role allowing him to take on two different personas), Mills (a former child actress just starting to move into more adult roles here; she'd marry the director right after filming was complete) is likable as our heoine and there are nice supporting performances from Whitelaw (whose character finds herself sexually attracted to "Georgie" in one of the ickier subplots), Finlay, Calvert and most of the rest of the cast. There are also a number of D.H. Lawrence references throw in (obviously because of the author's own Freudian mother fixation), including a direct visual allusion to Lawrence's masturbation parable "The Rocking Horse Winner."

Someone must have liked the chemistry between Mills and Bennett because the two were re-teamed in the Agatha Christie adaptation ENDLESS NIGHT just a few years later. And apparently Alfred Hitchcock liked what he saw of Whitelaw (who won a BAFTA Award for her performance here) and Foster, because after viewing this film he decided to cast both in his hit FRENZY (1972). Bernard Herrmann's eerie, memorable whistling theme later turned up in rip-off artist Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL: VOL 1 and other films. I also just noticed checking out the debut episode of the new series American Horror Story, that it not only recycles the same theme music, but also has a neighbor character (played by Jessica Lange) with a Down's Syndrome daughter (whom she refers to as a "mongoloid").

It's well-photographed by Harry Waxman, and also features Hammer film regular Thorley Walters and an uncredited Marianne Stone in small roles. The DVD is from Optium Releasing.


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