Twisted Nerve (1968)/ Deadly Strangers (1975)
The films in tonight's double feature share these things in common:
- They are thrillers starring Hayley Mills
- A main character is mentally deranged
- Hayley Millis is stalked, ravaged, and creepily ogled in both films
- They end with someone being hauled off to an insane asylum
Will Hayley make it out of both films alive? Grab some popcorn, and let's find out...
Twisted Nerve (1968)
Martin (Hywell Bennett) is visiting his brother with Down's Syndrome at the hospital. He obviously cares for him, and is concerned for his well-being; but there's just something not quite right about Martin.
Note that there was a bit of controversy over this film's depiction of Down's Syndrome. Critics claimed it linked the chromosomal disease to psychopathy. Indeed, the film begins with a disclaimer:
"Ladies and gentlemen, in view of the controversy already aroused, the producers of this film wish to reemphasize what is already stated in the film - that there is no established scientific connection between mongolism and psychotic or criminal behavior."
Later, at a toy store, Martin spies a pretty young girl, Susan (Hayley Mills). The two are carted into the store manager's office, suspected of shoplifting. Susan is completely innocent; it's Martin who's stuck a toy for his brother in his pocket.
Susan explains she's never met this fool in her life. And, unexpectedly, Martin acts like he's retarded, stating his name is "Georgie". WTF is going on?
It's interesting for me to see Hayley Mills in this role, because I only know her from That Darn Cat, The Parent Trap, Polyanna and The Family Way (a movie which also starred Hywell Bennett). I suppose she was trying to break out of the kiddie genre with this psychological horror flick.
At Martin's palatial estate, we learn that his parents have learned of his shoplifting episode. His stepfather (Martin's biological father is dead) believes his son is severely troubled, and has had enough. The ill-will is shared by Martin, who abhors his new dad, and believes they should not have stuffed his brother away in a hospital.
Martin is stalking Susan, following her at a distance down the street while whistling. It has to be mentioned that this whistle was used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol.1 when Darryl Hannah enters the hospital.
Many of you will recognize this scene from a recent Mini Skirt Monday, where we tracked miniskirts on ladders in cinema and television.
Susan is a librarian who's getting a book for two lads who are having a nice look. Martin lurks close behind.
Martin once again regresses into his "Georgie" persona, sounding mentally challenged. Susan is altogether too trusting of this character. Granted, maybe it would be a bit jaded for her to presume "Georgie" is a dangerous and highly disturbed boy rather than handicapped and in need of a Good Samaritan.
Arriving home from the library, Martin is confronted by his stepfather who wants him out of the house by tomorrow. Martin delivers a cocky reply and flips him this little trinket. I'm not quite sure what it means. I know Schweppes had the "Schhh You Know Who" slogan... but I don't get the relevance. Any thoughts?
At Susan's home, the Harper residence, we meet her mother Joan (Billie Whitelaw). You might recognize her as the satanic nanny in The Omen. Alfred Hitchcock saw her in this film and cast her in another highly disturbing film, Frenzy.
Joan Harper runs this enormous estate by herself and has two tenants: an Indian medical student and another recognizable face...
....Gerry, is played by Barry Foster - the serial killer in Frenzy. Hitchcock saw him in Twisted Nerve, and cast him in his film as well.
Also of note, the scenes in the Harper abode were filmed at Hayley Mills' actual home.
That night, a homeless Georgie shows up at their doorstep. Saintly Susan convinces mom to let him stay. Joan is skeptical, but when they fail to get a hold of his parents, she agrees. She's soon won over by how handy Georgie is around the house, mowing the lawn, doing dishes, etc.
I think you can see what "Georgie" has in mind. Pretend to be mentally handicapped in order to stay under the same roof with the girl you're obsessing about - it's masterful.
That night, Martin slips out and murders his stepfather with a large pair of scissors. Back at the Harper home, he once again assumes his Georgie persona and appears at Joan's bedroom door, suffering from nightmares. She lets him stay in her bed, while her boyfriend, the tenant Gerry, is essentially cock blocked, and returns to his room, frustrated and alone.
Does it look like maybe Joan has a hankering for an underage mentally handicapped boy? Perish the thought.
Gerry is suspicious that Joan is having a fling with Georgie and confronts her, accusing her of sleeping with a "half wit". She demands that he leave the house within a week.
Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is investigating the mysterious death of Martin's father, and he's suspect number one.
Georgie reads comic books while a swingin' party goes down at the Harper place. Susan's boyfriend, Phillip (Christian Roberts), is getting a little fresh, and Georgie doesn't like what he sees. Not one bit.
Leaving the room, Georgie "accidentally" overturns the record player, which smashes to bits upon the floor. Phillip believes it was intentional and lays into poor foolish Georgie. Susan doesn't like Phillip's behavior and breaks up with him.
If you're keeping track, that's three relationships he's destroyed in a span of a day: Joan and Gerry, Susan and Phillip, and his parents (via a pair of scissors). Georgie is really becoming a pain in the ass.
As the days go by, Susan starts to develop a suspicion of Georgie; even to the point of connecting him to the murder in the newspaper. She pays a visit to his mother, but the fact that Georgie is actually Martin still remains unproven.
"Is your Martin mentally backwards? Retarded?" she asks, trying to connect the dots. Finally, she sees his picture on the mantle, and all is clear. Georgie = Martin.
Susan rushes to the medical school where the Indian medical student tenant, Shashie (Salmaan Peerzada) just happens to be hearing a lecture on the issue at hand: Mongolism.
"Any relatives of a mongol are usually as normal as you or I.... but 1 in every 100 suffers a mental disturbance... No puppet master pulls the strings on high proportioning our parts; the tinsel and the paint, a twisted nerve, a ganglion gone awry, predestines the sinner or the saint"
While Susan is at the medical center with Shashie, Joan is taking a liking to young Georgie. Unfortunately, she mentions that Susan has gone to London to meet with someone by the name of Durnley (his real last name). This displeases Georgie to no end, and he takes an axe to poor Ms. Harper.
When Susan calls home and receives no answer, she rushes back. She returns to an empty home, not realizing her mother is dead in the shed out back. There's a tense moment when a figure appears at the front door, but it's just drunk Gerry.
When Susan goes upstairs to fetch some aspirin for Gerry, she's confronted with Georgie. The cards are all on the table now; he's Martin, he's killed his father, and he's killed her mother. He commands her to put on a wedding dress and listen to his mad rantings.
A lot happens in the last five minutes of the movie: While Martin is busy harassing Susan, Gerry discovers Joan dead in the shed, Shashie arrives and phones the police. No one seems to know or be concerned that Susan is upstairs possibly in mortal danger.
Martin pulls a gun and starts to manhandle Susan, but the police arrive at last and haul Martin to the insane asylum - leaving orphan Susan completely shell shocked.
It's rather depressing to see the trusting and caring Susan come face to face with the dark side of humanity.... or was it just a chromosomal defect? In the end, the whole genetics aspect to the story is what undoes it. It's a lot more meaningful without it, and ultimately isn't even scientifically sound.
But, the film is brilliantly shot with amazing acting. Hayley Mills is a fox (and, surprisingly, so is Damien's nanny, Billie Whitelaw), and Hywell Bennett's performance is perfect. The story, while flawed, is certainly engaging and paced well. Not much to complain about with Twisted Nerve - Gilligan recommends.
Deadly Strangers (1975)
Hayley Mills is back but it's been a few years - the hair is different, the times are different, and, unfortunately, the film quality is different (the best I can find is a well-loved VHS tape).
Anyway, a psychopath has escaped from the mental institution and a pretty girl named Belle (Hayley Mills) walks into a diner looking to catch a ride to the train station. Gee, I wonder where this is headed...
A truck driver at the diner offers to give her a lift. What's interesting is the parallel to Twisted Nerve's ladder scene. where the fellas ogle at Hayley's legs as she climbs up oblivious.
The truck driver turns out to be a slobbering rapist. Belle escapes, but is stranded on the side of the road in shitty English weather. Fortunately, there's a nice man named Stephen (Simon Ward) there to give her a lift.
Unfortunately, Stephen is very likely the escaped lunatic.
The two drive for a while making awkward small talk. It's at this point you realize that it's going to be a slow paced movie... but you're okay with it, because the acting is great, and the tension is allowed to slowly build.
They arrive at the train station, and Stephen volunteers to go check.. returning to regretfully inform her that she's missed her train. After nearly being raped by a truck driver, you wouldn't think she'd be so quickly of a mind to trust the word of another stranger.
They stop for petrol. When it looks like the place is unattended, Stephen looks through a window and sees the world's hottest gas station attendant (Nina Francis) dressing. After some flirtation and a fill-up, she is promptly murdered. .... but by who? The killing is done POV style, so there's still a question mark on the killer's identity.
The problem is - as you will learn - this whole scene makes no sense given the big reveal at the end of film. There's simply no way it could have happened. But let's move on, and talk about this again later.
Forty minutes into the film and we're still driving. Granted, things happen: there's a police chase, a couple bikers cause trouble until one is driven off the road and bursts into flames. But this is definitely a road movie; and despite an extended amount of time behind the wheel, it's not as boring as it appears. Just remember Spielberg's Duel, an entire film that takes place behind the wheel, and never ceases being interesting.
They pull into a wooded path and sleep in the car for the night. When Stephen awakes he finds Belle gone, and goes storming off in his car, cursing "bitch" along the way.
But Belle has just slipped out to grab some food and did not intend to abandon Stephen. Stranded again, she gets a ride from an eccentric American named Malcolm (Sterling Hayden).
But Stephen catches up with the odd pair, and gets Belle back. However, Malcolm, after Belle's departure, learns of the escaped lunatic from the newspaper. He gives chase, presumably to save Belle... or does he have another motive?
I think it's safe to speculate here that it's Belle who's the escaped lunatic, and Malcolm is actually trying to save Stephen!
In other words - we're faced with the question of who's actually the escaped psycho? Stephen or Belle? Both seem a tad odd, and both have sporadic flashbacks of a troubled past....
Belle's flashbacks consist of her being ogled by her creepy, pervy father. (Note the convenient mirror placement) Stephen's flashbacks consist of being sexually shamed by girlfriends. They both have issues and were made for each other it seems.
Finally, the driving ends and the two get a room for the night. I swear Hayley Mills smokes two full packs of cigarettes through the course of this movie. Obviously, this is a means to shed her Pollyanna-Parent Trap good girl image.
And here's another means. Hayley actually goes topless - which must've been quite a shock for some (although, I don't think this is her only film with a nude scene).
The film tries to keep you thinking that Belle is the one in peril, heightening tension with each scene. Except, I have to believe most viewers are onto the twist ending well before it happens...
It's Belle who's the escaped mental patient. Sadly, she ends up killing poor Stephen before being finally caught by the police. Stephen was such a lovable loser, it truly is a depressing moment.
Yet, I'm left wondering if Stephen was truly all that innocent. He was driving a stolen car, was secretive about his name and employment, and clearly had some emotional issues (via his flashbacks). Plus, there was no logistical way that Belle could have killed the gas station attendant.
So, were they both psychos? The film is clear that Belle is, but so vague with Stephen that I'm not sure at all. Perhaps a re-watch would shed some light on things, but I don't think I'm up for it. Deadly Strangers did a good job of building suspense and creating tension, but, in the end, it grew tiresome and the payoff was lacking.
The best way to describe Deadly Strangers is turning a dial slowly from 1 to 2 to 3... and it takes so long to get to 4, you've stopped caring. If it had at least eventually gotten to 10 we could walk away feeling good about ourselves.