Martin (Hywel Bennett) has a mongoloid brother and his mother worry is that even Martin could be affected by some kind of disease. Martin has a very rich stepfather, who is completely despised by the young boy. One day Martin while in a toy store, shoplifts a plastic duck to get the attention of a beautiful young girl, Susan (Hayley Mills). The two are caught by the owner who thinks they are together. Martin hides his identity under the name of Georgie and make them believe is mentally retarded. Susan moved by this tender, cute boy, buys the duck for him.
She doesn’t know that Martin has been planned this meeting since he saw her working at the public library. Back home, Martin is confronted by his stepfather who announces that he’s sending the boy away for a while on a forced vacation. Martin leaves the following day, but while waiting at an hotel for his departure, he accurately plans his stay in the city to go deeper on with his new obsession: Susan. Martin shows up at night at Susan’s home, with a fake note from his father, who asks the girl and her family to take the boy with them for a week, since he has known she has been so kind to him. Susan and her mother feel pity for this endearing, problematic child and decide to give him shelter in their home, where they rent rooms to cover the expenses. A perverse role play starts, with Martin seducing people with his innocence and young beauty; an act that hides a dangerous and devilish plan: to take revenge of his stepfather and seduce Susan.
Directed by Roy Boulting and produced by his brother John from a screen story by Roger Marshall, penned by Leo Marks and Roy Boulting; the movie was released in 1968 to mixed reviews, and was in trouble with Censorship since the first press screening. Medical Associations of Handicapped Children complained about a possible link between mental disease and mongolism as depicted in the film. The brothers decided, just before the general release, to add a voice over before main titles, stating that the creators of the film thought mongolism and mental deviance were in any way connected. This didn’t resolve all the problems, that from a today perspective sound very much preposterous, as the assertion of a mental predisposition to crime due to a mutated chromosome is a possibility still explored by scientists around the world. Maybe because the Boultings were still under the storm created by their previous film The Family Way, a huge scandal in changing puritan England, facing the theme of impotence, in a young newly married couple, with an irreverent tone of comedy lent from Free Cinema and showing that the Brothers, even if coming from the golden age of British movies were always keeping pace with the times and have touched a noteworthy topic again; as they did with TN.
Twisted nerve was probably an attempt to cash in on a genre that was very successful in the 60’s, the exploration of madness and psychotic behaviours through the thriller/horror. Due to the worldwide success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but anticipated by Michael Powell’s less known and highly criticized The Peeping Tom (the film almost put an end to Powell’s career); the psycho thrillers were in vogue and popular during the 60’s with some excellent examples like: Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, Bunny Lake Is Missing and some Hammer minor vehicles like The Nanny, Paranoiac and Never Take Candies From A Stranger (one of the first films to deal with the problem of paedophilia and child molestation).
Clearly inspired by Hitchcock’s film, as Roy asserted in an interview (“...I wanted to make my silent tribute to Hitchcock, and prove that human beings could be absolutely real and not just charmers like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly” – The Family Way: The Boulting Brothers and British Film Culture, edited by Burton, O’Sullivan and Wells. Flicks Books, UK 2000) TN is scored by the same composer Bernard Herrman whose famous “whistle” theme for the movie has been recently reused and brought back to fame by Quentin Tarantino in his Kill Bill saga.
The film is a minor classic on his own. It is more a dramatic Freudian exploration of the mind, than a clockwork thriller with twists and turns. The story follows the actions of Martin all the time, with no guessing, as the audience is more an accomplice than an inert user. It’s a way to dig inside him and the unresolved problems with his own mother, the real object of his desire, and his needs of affection that make him regress to a childish stage. More than relying on scaring scenes, the Boultings prefer to deliver subtle sexual innuendos, like in a scene in which Martin/Georgie pretending to be scared enters the bed of Susan’s mother at night. The woman, upset with her lover since he got drunk and came home late, is almost seduced by the younger boy showing an attraction that is motherly and sexual at the same time; the unresolved Oedipian complex again this time reversed.
So TN can’t be defined as a thriller only, but it’s more a Psycho Drama: we are not interested in who done it? But in how far Martin could go with his deviation game. The audience is not fascinated by the fear of the unknown, but to understand how the mind of this young boy works. Martin is a border line split personality that can’t cope with his own self: we see him twice in the film reflected in a broken mirror as he was trying to terminate his image, a symbol for one of his inner two. The first time, after he has talked with his mother, at the beginning of the movie, and have learned that she’s in favour of his departure, a shocking image of the guy naked reflected in the broken glass with the cracks just there to cover his lower parts; a metaphor: his broken genitalia as the “coitus interruptus”, the incest that never took place, but also the umbilical cord cut forever. The second time at the end of the movie, when he shoots his reflected image in the mirror as he was trying to stop his second self from hurting Susan. Susan is only a perpetuation of his own mother, the one that refused him and wanted him to leave. What Martin/Georgie is looking for, is another mom, that could take care of him as a child and even as a lover.
But TN is also a twisted coming of the age tale, mirror of its times: the end of the 60’s. As one of Martin personalities refuses to grow up and find a mother that could take care of him forever, the other has a push to rebel and destroy the establishment he hates so much: Martin’s stepfather, the allegory for the older wealthy generations that incarnate the source of repression of the younger ones and that are unable to rule a country with their conservative point of view. TN is no IF…Lindsay Anderson’s boys rebel and start a possible revolution, here the Boultings, probably more conservative, sees the rebellion as a deviation, but what it’s important is that they are aware of the uneasiness of the younger people and their need to express themselves in a less strictly ruled society; the very same one they were always criticizing with their movies.
Part of the Boulting Brothers The Collection the film is available on DVD in UK by Optimum Releasing a Studio Canal company (owner of the rights). The image is crisp and well detailed, flawless, and has been restored with no sign of dirts, specks, vertical lines of any kind. The movie has been probably re-mastered in HD and looks gorgeous with saturated colours that reflect the vibrant cinematography by Harry Waxman and his unusual approach to the story, with all the characters and situations well lighted in counter apposition to the dark soul of the story told. I strongly recommend most of the Boulting Brothers movies, they deserve a complete re discovery of their works. The collection is a mixed bag, for instance the materials used to re-master Seven Days To Noon (one of their best films) are in terrible shape and have not been restored. There are no extras of any kind not even the trailers in most of the discs.
Not with this standing, I suggest the mentioned, The Family way, Brighton Rock and of course the whistling shivers of Twisted Nerve. I’ll be probably coming back again to their cinema as I consider it a mile stone of the British one and second to nothing else.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace
SEQUENCE FROM THE FILM