Over the last several years, I’ve been tracking down all the films referenced in Tarantino’s revenge epic Kill Bill. The latest one I was able to cross off the list was the 1968 British thriller Twisted Nerve.
A spoiled rich kid named Martin (Hywell Bennett) pretends to be mentally retarded in order to get close to a girl (Hayley Mills) he's become infatuated with.
Twisted Nerve is a well-executed, old school thriller. The characters have weight to them and it gives the film a very organic feel. It moves at a very deliberate pace, but in a way that feels very true and without deceit. There are some really great performances here, as well. Bennett, during his more somber moments, reminded me of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. His predatory stares were cold and calculating, and he barely had to speak for you to see he cared for no one, but himself. Considering the year of release though, Anthony Perkins' performance in Psycho would be a more likely influence. Mills is stunning as Susan Harper. She could be one of the most kind and wholesome characters I’ve ever seen in a film. This made the climax all the more intense because I didn’t want to see anything awful happen to her.
I thought about saying Twisted Nerve, due its focus on character and story, was a film with no bells and whistles, but that would've been false. The cinematography is fantastic, and the score provided by Bernard Herrmann – and the reason I found this film in the first place – was awesome to hear, not only in context, but also in its many variations throughout the film.
I think the thing about Twisted Nerve that struck me the most was the realization of how much things have changed over the last fourty years. Susan and her mother are thrown into peril for the simple fact that they were good and infallibly trusting souls. It was a different time, and horrible people like Martin are the reason we aren’t quick to do nice things for each other anymore. Something else that stood out was the treatment of Shashie (Salmaan Peer), an East Indian resident of the Harper boarding house. Despite being a completely upstanding citizen – in medical school, no less – he is the butt of countless jokes and off-hand remarks from a number of his peers. Even more fascinating was every single slight was met with a smile or chuckle in response. It was all just accepted behaviour, as political correctness hadn’t even been invented yet.
Twisted Nerve is admittedly pretty tame when stacked up against similar sexually charged thrillers of that era – like Peeping Tom or Straw Dogs – so that may be why it hasn’t gained such notoriety, but it too weaves a fine tale of a sort you just don’t see anymore.
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