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Mondays with Hayley Mills: Twisted Nerve (1968)

Over the course of September, I’ve been doing a deep-dive into the filmography of Hayley Mills in celebration of her recently released memoir. I’ve been trying to include a smattering of her varied and diverse works throughout this series. Of course many remember her time with Walt Disney, but in a career spanning more than fifty years, only five were spent inside ‘The House of Mouse’. This week, we’re turning our attention of some of her post-Disney work beginning with 1968’s Twisted Nerve.

Twisted Nerve follows a Martin (Hywel Bennett) a young man, who for lack of a better word, has issues. His brother Petey has been institutionalized due to Downs syndrome, his doting Mother (Phyllis Calvert) suffocates him while his step-father hates him. So, when he meets a young woman (Hayley Mills) who is genuinely nice to him, he becomes obsessed… to complicated ends. Roy Boulting directs the film from a script he co-wrote with Leo Marks.

Before I go too much further, I need to give a brief warning. Twisted Nerve is a movie dealing subjects like Down syndrome and chromosomal abnormalities in 1968. As such, the film is uses the terminology and ideas of the period. Coming from a modern perspective, these moments can be challenging. There’s a lot of outdated language used, which today is considered problematic. This could prove upsetting for some viewers.

The warning is out of the way. On to the review.

While Hayley Mills made a number of films with Hywel Bennett throughout the middle of her career, I did watch this one first, and readers, that was a mistake. The young actor was one who I wasn’t familiar with until I tackled this project and boy-oh-boy… I was surprised to realize, as I jumped into The Family Way and Endless Night (Mills’ other pairings with Bennett), Twisted Nerve colored how I saw him in these other (more sedate) roles. This is a part capable of plunging an actor into a future of typecasting. I kept waiting for him to start whistling the Twisted Nerve theme.

Bennett brings a terrifying clarity to Martin and Georgie as characters. The role could so easily be played as over-the-top or completely removed from reality. However, in Bennett’s hands Martin feels fully and completely with his faculties and with that, he’s using his ‘Georgie’ persona as a calculated weapon. That’s why Twisted Nerve is so terrifying. On the surface, Martin seems like a “normal” young man. He’s completely unthreatening, particularly when he puts on his Georgie character. He wouldn’t hurt a fly… supposedly…

When you factor in Bennett’s portrayal with Bernard Herrmann’s haunting theme (check out the YouTube video above), the result is a truly unsettling work of cinema. Twisted Nerve walks a very thin line between horror and thriller. The horror is largely restrained with the script focusing on the terror in the unknown… for Susan (Mills) that is. Sitting in the audience, you find yourself terrified for this young girl because we know Martin so intimately. It’s immediately clear what he’s capable of.

In the development of Martin’s character, the script quickly jumps into some (as mentioned) fairly uncomfortable places. We’re introduced to him as he plays with his brother Petey who was institutionalized due to his Down syndrome (though the film uses other dated terminology). While there’s the overarching discussion of chromosomal abnormality in the narrative as well as definite struggles to understand the science in popular culture, Petey is not the villain in this piece and he’s not developed as such. Rather, the more common question of nature versus nurture quickly emerges as Martin’s psychosis is examined. It’s always Mom’s fault…

We all know that “mother issues” are particularly common within the horror genre *cough* Mrs. Voorhees *cough*. More generally though, the character trope is a common across the cinema of the Post-WWII era. There’s little quite as powerful as a domineering, smothering mother to create at the very least a juvenile delinquent, or even a psychotic killer. Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, and Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train both had smothering mothers and Twisted Nerve presents Phyllis Calvert in a very similar role as Martin’s mother. She’s babied him, spoiled him and it is her selfishness to even have him which leads to the events of the story. The narrative quite literally mentions that she was told to not have any more children after Petey, but she did it anyway. (It’s hard out there for a horror movie Mom).

So much is accomplished through Marks and Boulting’s choice to align the script with Martin’s perspective. From the opening scene, this is Martin’s movie and with very few exceptions, the narrative remains with him. The audience spends a number of quiet moments with this young man and as such, the layers of Bennett’s portrayal become immediately clear. The audience knows what this boy is capable of, but at the same time, we see why he is, the way he is. It’s hard to call him sympathetic, but at the same time, is he completely at fault? After all, his Mother could certainly have done things differently, right?

It has already been mentioned that Twisted Nerve is fully and completely Bennett’s film. Hayley Mills appears as Susan, the object of Martin’s affections. Unfortunately though, this leaves her with very little narrative lifting to do in a role which would be thankless in the hands of a different actress. As the story is structured, the terror revolves around Susan being clueless to what’s going on around her for much of the story. Obviously, if she really thought some of these things through, Georgie would be shown the door much earlier in the film.

This role came in 1968, three years after That Darn Cat!, Mills’ swan song with the Walt Disney Studios. The stretch was a strong one for the young actress who completed roles in The Trouble with Angels, The Family Way and next week’s review A Matter of Innocence. She was jumping into older roles and playing young women at a time when sex and gender norms were changing at lightning speed. Unfortunately, while these other movies gave Mills an opportunity for interesting character work, she functions largely as a symbol in this movie. She’s innocence. She’s kindness. She’s goodness. Heck, she was “Pollyanna” for goodness sake. If a different actress were to step into the part of Susan, it’s difficult to see it working as well.

Ultimately, Twisted Nerve is a complicated and potentially loaded viewing. This one really isn’t for the faint of heart. There are a number of factors playing into the uncomfortable construction of this triller, not only in the narrative development, but frankly in the historical evolution which came after. It is difficult to watch this movie without wincing at the depiction of many of these subjects. With all that being said though, Twisted Nerve is a taut and unsettling thriller showing not only solid direction from Boulting, but an unnerving performance from Hywel Bennett. If you’re a fan of horror films in the vein of Peeping Tom, add this one to your lists.

Twisted Nerve is available to view on YouTube.

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