Umbrella Entertainment: Twisted Nerve (1968) - Reviewed


Images courtesy of British Lion Films

Twisted Nerve (1968) starts with a content warning:

"In view 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 psychiatric or criminal behavior."

Even when it was released, it touched a nerve with the general public with how it portrayed individuals with Down Syndrome and the implication that it could be correlated with dangerous and violent behavior. Even modern horror films often use mental illness as a shorthand to motivate killers and criminals. 

The story follows Martin (Hywel Bennett), an intense and melancholy young man with an older brother named Pete with Down Syndrome. Their father died many years prior, and their mother remarried to a wealthy businessman. Martin doesn't get along with his stepfather and deeply resents him.

While on a trip to a toy store, Martin is smitten by a beautiful woman named Susan (Hayley Mills). He pickpockets a toy while she is purchasing her things, and they are both apprehended by security at the door and taken into the back office. To escape being arrested, Martin pretends to be intellectually disabled and takes on a new persona that he calls Georgie. The Georgie bit goes over well, and he escapes arrest and, in the process, finds out Susan's address. Martin continues pretending to be Georgie to get closer to Susan romantically.

It is evident through Martin's character development that he is deeply insecure about his appearance and how people perceive him. He spends his free time reading muscle magazines and standing nude in front of a mirror, inspecting his body. His mother didn't accept having a disabled child and took out her anxiety and fears on Martin. He has been sheltered and coddled so much that he didn't learn proper social cues. At first, he aims his violent impulses at himself, but eventually, he turns them outwards.

Sadly, Susan is an underwritten character with no agency, and it would have been a lot more interesting if she had more to do than being harassed. That being said, there is an ongoing commentary about how women will put up with a lot of terrible conduct from men because they are taught by society to acquiesce to others regardless of their feelings. Throughout the film, Georgie's strange behavior is mainly ignored, and Susan is the one who is constantly taking the blame for his actions. In parallel to Susan's platonic relationship with Martin, her mother has a secret sexual attraction to his childlike personality, like she is conflating motherly nurturing with lustful feelings.

The most infamous aspect of this film is the score by Bernard Herrmann, which features a haunting whistling tune used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill (2003). Herrmann uses that leitmotif in various ways, weaving it in and out of the score like the memory of a horrible nightmare. There is a lot of mirror imagery in the film as well, with Martin using his reflection to "talk" to his alter ego and using shattered glass as a metaphor for his broken psyche.

Although Twisted Nerve is dated in its depiction of mentally disabled people, Roy Boulting's film, at its heart, ultimately feels sorry for the protagonist, like one would for a small child. Perhaps if his environment would have been more nurturing he wouldn't have gone down such a dark path.


Film historian Alan Jones has a short film essay that covers the history of the film as well as some of the controversy around both the movie and the director. The commentary, hosted by Jonathon Rigby and Kevin Lyons, is incredibly informative and in-depth covering the context around the movie’s release and the previous work by all the actors involved. 

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment

Blu-ray Set Extras:

Feature presented in the original UK aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and alternative full frame 1.33:1

Audio Commentary by English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby and Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film & Television editor Kevin Lyons

CLEAVER. CLEAVER. CHOP. CHOP – an interview featurette with author and film historian Alan Jones

Original theatrical trailer

--Michelle Kisner