Twisted Nerve (1968)
The hypnotic whistle echoing at the beginning of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 can pique a person's curiosity. When I looked into it, I discovered that this theme was composed by Bernard Herrman for a 1968 psychological thriller from England entitled Twisted Nerve. One would expect, after hearing such a haunting tune, that this film would be suspenseful and tense -- an impression only reinforced by the film's rather ghoulish trailer. Twisted Nerve disappoints these expectations. Roy Boulting's film may contain some moments of tension, but it more or less fails to spark a sense of fear and helplessness in its audience. In fact, it is an adequate thriller at best; most of its horror, or at least what horror there is to be found here, comes on the psychological level rather than the visceral one.
The story in brief: Martin Darnley (Hywel Bennett) is a problematic young man living with his mother Enid (Phyllis Calvert) and stepfather Henry (Frank Finlay). After Martin gets into trouble with the law, Henry challenges Martin to live on his own. Posing as a mentally challenged young boy named Georgie, he wins the compassion of a young college student, Susan (Haley Mills); Susan persuades her reluctant mother Joan (Billie Whitelaw) into letting "Georgie" rent an extra room...
The biggest strength of Twisted Nerve is the film's central focus on its troubled main character. Martin possesses what most people in modern society would desire: good looks, wealth, a lavish upbringing in a sophisticated family. But the thoughts within Martin's complex mind are anything but stable. His childhood was marred by a debilitating event that crippled his family, sending Enid into an unhealthy obsession with her young son. His mother's corrosive, suffocating influence has engendered a fear of adulthood in Martin; he refuses (to his father's great irritation) to accept the responsibilities of living on his own, and the occasional glimpse of his bedroom reveals it to be disturbingly cluttered with old toys and teddy bears. His mannerisms and actions are that of a spoiled child -- throwing temper tantrums at his parents, or curling up on his bed with one of his stuffed animals.
Martin is also inflicted with a distorted self-image. The dark secret that plagues his family has infested his mind, and it's implied that he thinks of himself as ugly or somehow physically disfigured, although no one else can certainly see anything wrong with him. In one unsettling sequence (which may or may not be a dream), Martin undresses and gazes at his mirror, desperately examining himself for the slightest imperfection. In a symbolic twist, the mirror fractures as he stares at it, shattering his reflection over the most intimate area of his body.
Hywel Bennett, tasked with portraying this problematic man-child, delivers a phenomenal performance. His pleasant physical features and broad range are both hypnotic and terrifying. It is difficult to change the mask of emotion from one drastic expression to another. However, Bennett's sudden transformation from a vulnerable young man into a hateful psychopath is done with absolute, convincing poise; utilizing his body language, soft voice and soulful blue eyes, he captures Martin/Georgie's descent into madness.
And yet Bennett's portrayal of Martin is the only saving grace of the film. The rest of the cast fail to match up, and Twisted Nerve is all the poorer for it. In particular, Hayley Mills' soft-spoken interpretation of the female protagonist is fatally weak and unsuited to the tone of the film. This was during the time that Mills was transitioning from child star into adulthood; unfortunately, if she was trying to prove her ability to tackle more mature roles, Twisted Nerve was not the perfect vehicle for her. In the climactic confrontation between the two leads, Mills appears stiff and emotionless as her counterpart closes in on her. The remainder of the cast are similarly forgettable -- even Martin's parents, who fail to convey the psychological complexity of this unhappy family; at most, they're bland fixtures in the background, window dressing for Bennett's incredible screen presence.
In a psychological thriller, character interactions are the cogs working to keep the film in motion. Without the necessary acting chemistry, a movie will be forgotten by its audience, regardless of how interesting the central character is. This movie suffers most for exactly this reason, and all the misleading slasher-styled trailers in the world can't permanently conceal a film's flaws. Overall, Twisted Nerve is worth a view solely for Hywel Bennett's performance, but don't expect a more than merely passable film... and especially don't expect any brutal bloodshed. It's just not that kind of movie.