The problem with triptychs is that while you see three different images these are essentially illusions and you never get to see the whole picture. And that's a good way to describe Martin Durnley (Bennet), a doting sibling to his institutionalized and mentally retarded brother, a pampered and irresponsible lout to his posh mother and stepfather, and an obsessive stalker to the pretty girl he becomes infatuated with after a chance encounter at a department store, where he adapts yet another personality when he is caught shoplifting, channeling his older brother, becoming the earnest but slow-witted “Georgie."
Taking pity on him, the duped girl, Susan Harper (Mills), offers to pay for the toy he stole. But this random act of kindness comes at a heavy price as Martin follows her home, a boarding house run by her mother (Whitelaw), and manages to spin a web of lies as Georgie that lands him a room over the Christmas holiday. This strategy is twofold, as one, it keeps him close to Susan, who is beginning to suspect something isn't quite right with her new friend, and two, it's part of an elaborate alibi so he can kill his stepfather, who thinks Martin is in Paris, which he does, rather gruesomely, with a pair of scissors.
But as Martin's desire for Susan increases, in a *ahem* biblical sense, the sheer weight of all those carefully constructed deceits cause them to inevitably collapse -- along with his grip on sanity, leaving our boy to work fast (usually with something sharp) to maintain his delusions. And as Susan follows several clues back to Martin’s mother and learns the truth, has she learned it too late to save those she holds dear?
“No puppet master pulls the string on high, a twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry, predestinates the sinner or the saint,” said the poet George Sylvester Viereck. And there you have the gist of the nature vs. nurture grist of the Boulting Brother's psychological thriller, Twisted Nerve (1968), which is based on the junk-science notion of an extra chromosome equaling a genetic predisposition toward violence. This notion soon had the filmmakers back-pedaling upon its release, requiring a pre-credit disclaimer that disavowed the film's claims on eugenics to appease offended audiences worldwide.
After first teaming them up in the fanciful romantic farce The Family Way (1966), John and Roy Boulting reunited Hywell Bennett and Hayley Mills for Twisted Nerve. Bennett is mesmerizing as the chameleon-like Martin, shifting from one personality to another. (I think the disaffected and narcissistic character is a dire precog to the likes of Klebold and Harris.) Like with another cinematic ‘psycho’, there are some hints of repressed homosexuality adding more fuel to his psychosis but I'm not sure if I buy this.
Meantime, Mills looks ah-mazing in those late 1960s fashions, in a Pollyanna After Dark sense, doing her best to distances herself from her wholesome days at Disney. And they're both ably abetted by a supporting cast, with special nods to Billie Whitelaw as the lonely mother, Barry Foster as the comedy relief, and Salmaan Peer as the unheeded voice of reason.
To me, Twisted Nerve deserves the grief it gets over its B.S. premise. But it is ultimately undone by its second most glaring flaw in that it is way, way too long, clocking in at nearly two hours. (It feels even longer than that.) And no matter how good the acting, how intense the writing, how terse the direction, or how effective Bernard Herrmann's sinister score, enhanced by the tune our villain constantly whistles that will bore into both ears and then keep on going until they meet in the middle at your medulla-oblongata and completely shred your brain into iddy-bitty pieces, which is all true, the film just cannot sustain such a deliberate pace, especially when the audience is well aware of what is happening and eventually lose patience as the rest of the characters, especially the blundering police investigators, try to catch up. It's good enough to recommend a watch, but a second viewing of Twisted Nerve will be a long time coming.
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Twisted Nerve (1968) Charter Film Productions :: National General Pictures / EP: John Boulting / P: George W. George, Frank Granat / D: Roy Boulting / W: Leo Marks, Roy Boulting / C: Harry Waxman / E: Martin Charles / M: Bernard Herrmann / S: Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Billie Whitelaw, Barry Foster