Twisted Nerve is a 1968 British-American psychological thriller film directed by Roy Boulting about a disturbed young man, Martin, who pretends, under the name of Georgie, to be mentally retarded in order to be near Susan, a girl he has become infatuated with, killing those who get in his way. The screenplay was co-written by Leo Marks (Peeping Tom) and Roy Boulting.
The title comes from the poem Slaves by George Sylvester Viereck (1884-1962) which is quoted twice in the movie, once during Professor Fuller’s lecture on chromosome damage and then as an audio flashback when Martin/Georgie is in a cell:
- No puppet master pulls the strings on high
- Proportioning our parts, the tinsel and the paint
- A twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry,
- Predestinates the sinner and the saint.
The film is notorious for its use of Down’s syndrome, then referred to as mongolism, as a catalyst for Martin’s actions. The film opens with a disclaimer to discount the connection between the disorder and antisocial behaviour.
The film soundtrack was composed by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho; Sisters; Dressed to Kill) and the main theme can also be heard in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill when a menacing Elle Driver whistles it in the hospital scene and his movie Death Proof as Rosario Dawson’s character’s ringtone.
The theme is also used in several episodes of American Horror Story, a horror-drama television series. The character of Tate (played by Evan Peters) has many similarities to Martin.
Twisted Nerve, a dark song by punk/goth/psychedelic rock band The Damned, featured on their Black Album (1980) pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to the film’s premise.
Mrs. Enid Durnley (Phyllis Calvert) is the fairly wealthy mother of two children – one a mongoloid with very little cognizance whom she hides away in an asylum, the other is Martin (Hywel Bennett). Martin doesn’t function on a ‘normal’ level either and the dire circumstances of life with his mother and brother aid him little.
Martin has the personality of a six-year-old when he is in his ‘nice’ phase so when, after he attempts to steal a toy and gets caught, a kindly student Susan (Hayley Mills) talks the shop manager out of pressing charges, the two become friends. Martin’s cruel stepfather Henry (Frank Finlay), enraged by the shoplifting, talks Martin’s mum into chucking him out. Susan’s mum (Billie Whitelaw) runs a boarding house and takes him in. Martin, however, may be secretly plotting revenge on anyone who has wronged him…
“Twisted Nerve builds a lot of suspense on its foundations of truths concealed and trouble brewing. And I mean a lot. Many reviewers seem to have found it tedious and slow, but there’s so much danger bubbling beneath the surface of every situation, every conversation, that I couldn’t look away” Ross Horsley, Anchorwoman in Peril
“It’s not a script that could work nowadays, but it is a well-made thriller, and a fascinating glimpse into the attitudes and sexual preoccupations of the recent past.” Black Hole
“Director Ray Boulting films everything with a lot of pizzazz. There is always an abundance of bright light and cheery colors which is cool because most of the film is so dark (metaphorically speaking). I think Hitchcock would’ve been proud of the murder sequences too.” Mitch Lovel, The Video Vacuum
“Visually Roy Boulting creates a tense and suspenseful film. At nearly two hours the film paced evenly with no scene feeling padded or unnecessary. The films violence is mostly off camera with some of the aftermath show on camera. One of the film’s greatest strengths is composer Bernard Herrmann masterful score. The best use of the score is when Martin hums it as he follows Susan. The film’s standout performance is Hywel Bennett as Martin.” Michael Den Boer, 10k Bullets
“It’s a beautiful, criminally underrated gem of an unreleased film. At times it reminded me of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, other times it reminded me of Freddie Francis’ Girly. But more than either it has a distinct Hitchockian flair yet still maintains it’s own flavor and originality. In fact, Hitchcock himself liked the movie so much that he cast Barry Foster and Billie Whitelaw in Frenzy.” Scumbalina, Atomic Caravan
Cast and characters:
- Hywel Bennett as Martin Durnley / Georgie
- Hayley Mills as Susan Harper
- Billie Whitelaw as Joan Harper
- Phyllis Calvert as Enid Durnley
- Frank Finlay as Henry Durnley
- Barry Foster as Gerry Henderson
- Salmaan Peer as Shashee Kadir
- Christian Roberts as Philip Harvey
- Gretchen Franklin as Clarkie
- Thorley Walters as Sir John Forrester
- Timothy West as Superintendent Dakin
- Russell Napier as Professor Fuller
- Timothy Bateson as Mr. Groom
- Richard Davies as Taffy Evans
- Basil Dignam as Doctor
- Robin Parkinson as Shop manager
- Marianne Stone as Store detective 1
- John Harvey as Store Detective 2
- Mollie Maureen as Lady patient
- Brian Peck as Det. Sgt. Rogers