Despite looking like a cross between David Hemmings with no swag and a member of The Who who got kicked out of the group before the band hit the big time, you’d never much expect sniveling moppet Martin Durnley (Hywel Bennett) to be a psychopath with an obsessive personality and a bad habit of deriving pleasure from pain. But set free in the streets of London and he’s a hazard to himself and others – look at him wrong or meet him between a rock and a hard place and you might as well consider yourself to be his next victim.
Psychological thriller cum slasher flick Twisted Nerve (1968), better known as the movie that gave Kill Bill’s (2003) Daryl Hannah a tune to whistle before attempting to poison a comatose Uma Thurman, finds the man-child targeting Susan Harper (Hayley Mills), a kindhearted, virtuous teenager he meets by chance at a toy store. After attempted theft prompts Martin to pretend that he’s a mentally challenged boy named Georgie to get out of trouble, he suddenly becomes a part of Susan’s life after she pities and befriends the person he’s masquerading as.
In reality, Martin is an unsatisfied child of wealth disturbed by his Down syndrome afflicted brother’s being locked up in a psychiatric facility and by his cloying mother (Phyllis Calvert) and overbearing stepfather (Frank Finlay). Already genetically predisposed to a masochistic personality, his frenzied home life only worsens his inability to integrate himself well within his peer group. He only knows how to act out and verbally and physically assault others.
When he meets Susan for the first time, though, something changes in him. He’s felt lust before, but never love, and he’s stunned to find himself experiencing a little bit of both. He’d like to perhaps take the higher road whenever he’s in her presence – he cannot see a future without her. But since their introduction sees him not as Martin but as a creation, he’s forever doomed to be “Georgie” in her eyes, with no way out. That hindrance in possibly getting together with her, then, kicks off a killing spree, a killing spree that puts special attention onto anyone standing between him and his clueless object of affection.
And for all its setbacks – its treatment of mental retardation is dated and thoroughly un-P.C., and its leading performance is Norman Bites lite when it should be Tom Ripley 2.0 – Twisted Nerve is a fundamentally effective chiller that sufficiently preys upon the kindness of strangers as its biggest scare tactic. How easily Martin inserts himself into Susan’s home life is spine-tingling, and co-writer and director Roy Boulting exploits that uneasiness with impressive persuasion. The further our hateful anti-hero sinks his claws into the Harper household, the more our skin crawls.
Undoubtedly, Twisted Nerve is a routine thriller – a mostly forgettable piece that with time looks more and more like a precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s later in life masterpiece Frenzy (1972) – but Mills, convincingly lovely, and, of course, Bernard Herrmann’s innovative score, allow it to prove itself as something of a nasty little gem. B-