Without Peeping Tom and Psycho, where would we be today? With two great works of art—one, a notorious commercial failure that all but ended the career of its director, the other, a paradigm-changing commercial smash that its own creator, ironically enough, was unable to further capitalize on—a thoroughly durable template for the physically attractive/psychosexually aberrant serial killer came into being, and filmmakers both putatively high-minded and thoroughly, unapologetically mercenary have been banging at it ever since. Still. The movies that came in the immediate temporal wake of Michael Powell's '59 Tom and Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho, which continuously tested/took advantage of the shifting mores and increasingly permissive production standards of their time, retain a particular, shall we say, charm.
So it is with Twisted Nerve, a 1968 effort from British filmmaking team Roy and John Boulting. These twin brothers alternated producing and directing chores from film to film; here, John produced, while Roy directed and co-wrote—with Leo Marks, who also penned the screenplay for Powell's Peeping Tom. The film today is best known for its typically inventive and florid score by Bernard Herrmann. Its whistled theme—reiterated throughout the film in orchestral, acoustic jazz, and electric versions, anticipating John Williams' treatment of the theme for Altman's The Long Goodbye—was resurrected by Quentin Tarantino as a leitmotif for the character Elle Driver in his Kill Bill.
But the film offers other twisty pleasures, opening with a bit of narration that begins even before the opening credits proper start to roll: "Ladies and gentlemen, because of the controversy already aroused, the producers of this film wish to re-emphasize what is already stated in the film, that there is no established scientific connection between Mongolism and psychotic or criminal behavior." All right, then, if you say so. Just to clarify: the film's baby-faced protagonist, Martin (Hywel Bennett), has an older brother who suffers from, um, "Mongolism." And his doting mother is worried that Martin's going to...catch it. Making matters more complicated/ridiculous, Martin, when he gets into a spot of trouble, reverts to a "slow," or, as some put it, "simple" alter ego he calls "Georgie." He doesn't go, as the characters in Tropic Thunder would say, "full retard." Just enough to make people feel kind of bad for him when he's caught shoplifting, say. Martin finds it comforting to revert to this state because...he hates his rich stepfather who's always after him to get a job?...he likes looking at male body-building magazines on the side?...he's got something wrong with him...down there? Who can really say? And who actually cares, so long as the narrative fulfills its functions?
It's under the guise of "Georgie" that Martin ingratiates himself into the home of Susan, the comely young lass who took pity on him at the shop where he tried lifting. Susan is played by Hayley Mills, one-time Disney moppet who created something of a scandal the year before Nerve by appearing in the Boulting-created proto-Knocked Up, The Family Way, playing the knocked up one. She created further scandal by marrying Roy Boulting, who was something like seventy-five years her senior, shortly after making this film. Susan's mum, played by Billie Whitelaw (who, every know-somethingish film critic and I'm no exception will tell you, was a favorite actress of Samuel Beckett), runs a sort of boarding house, where Martin's "Georgie," after cleverly bamboozling his folks concerning his whereabouts, secures a room by appealing to the motherly instincts of both females.
Also rooming at the place is a randy drunkard who's getting a bit on the side from Whitelaw. He's played by Barry Foster; both he and Whitelaw would appear together a few years later in Hitchcock's Frenzy. He's in the screencap below, trying to sneak a little late night lovin' in. You'll note that 1968 was a fabulous year for men's bathrobes.
While the likes of Hitchcock and Powell worked to garner considerable audience sympathy for their murderous miscreants, Twisted Nerve takes a somewhat different tack towards its antihero. The irreverent Boultings—who made a comedy on labor relations called I'm All Right Jack and adapted Amis' Lucky Jim to film—seem to take no little pleasure in Martin's machinations for a while. He is a cheeky little bugger—reverting from "Georgie" to his actual self the better to tell Susan's library boss to "get stuffed," for instance. The resourcefulness with which he pulls off his first murder is chronicled with something akin to respect. But then Martin's got to go an get all whingey and weird and hysterical, first in a scene in the woodshed with Whitelaw that looks, at least at first, to have some D.H. Lawrence potential.
But Martin can't achieve that potential...because, you know, there's maybe something wrong down there. In a startling coincidence, this scene is intercut with Susan's visit to a medical college, where a lecturer is discussing the very exact thing that makes Martin such a mess. This knowledge won't do Susan too much good when Martin insists that the two elope. Like so:
Don't worry, it's all going to turn out exactly as you expect it to. Still. Its peculiar tone and envelope-pushing make Nerve one of the more interesting and, dare we say it, seminal genre exercises of its time, and the Region 2 DVD released by Optimum presents it reasonably well. Actor Hywel Bennett, by the way, went on to have even more mortifying problems down there in 1971's much-reviled Percy, directed by Ralph Thomas (producer Jeremy's father).