Posts Tagged ‘Peeping Tom’

When I was ten years old I went with my parents and brother to the 5000 seat Fox cinema in St. Louis, MO., where we lived at the time. At least 4900 of the seats were empty, which I suspect was not uncommon. The attraction was a largely forgotten suspense/western called The Stalking Moon, directed by Robert Mulligan. I have no idea what attracted my parents to take my nine-year-old brother and I to it, but I don’t think they realized what they were getting into. It was not family stuff, full of brooding menace and more than a little violence, with a psychotic Apache brave trying to reclaim his white “squaw” (Eve Marie Saint) and half-breed child from Gregory Peck (playing his usual strong, decent, silent type).

What I remember more clearly was a trailer that preceded the film, waking me up to some of the thrilling sensations that cinema can provide, freaking my little brother out utterly, and throwing my parents into a quandary about whether to admit they had made a mistake, cut their losses and flee the cinema, or hang on and hope the main feature would be more suitable family material.

The trailer was for a British thriller titled Twisted Nerve. If the film is remembered at all today it is for its typically brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, which twists a jazz melody (heard within the film as source music) into something penetratingly weird, and weaves it with the protagonist’s creepy whistling of the tune. The theme had a second life when Quentin Tarantino stuck it in the Kill Bill mixmaster.

Chop Chop
Recently I finally watched Twisted Nerve for the first time, from a Region 2 DVD. Before I watched it, here were the things I still remembered from seeing the trailer in 1968:

-there was a hatchet in it, and it looked like the hatchet was used to kill a bunch of people, which was a new story concept to me at the time.

-it also had Hayley Mills in it, an actress I was familiar with from Disney fare I had seen on TV, and it looked like she might be a potential target for the hatchet, an idea with a potent transgressive charge (i.e. Pollyanna gets ax murdered).

-it was a young man doing the chopping, and he had his pretty face clawed nastily by Hayley Mills.

-it was the first time I saw a reference to an MPAA rating (“M”, for mature audiences).

-the trailer had a hyperbolic edge – it promised something really really scary.

I’m sure my parents’ distress only added to the pleasurable feelings I experienced in the discovery of this last point: that there were movies that existed solely to engage the energy of one’s fears.

A few years earlier, at 8 years old, I had decided to start reading newspapers, just in time to read detailed accounts of Richard Speck murdering 8 student nurses in one evening. This gave me a good dose of horror and for at least a week I was afraid to leave the house (it was summer so I didn’t need to go to school).

The Twisted Nerve trailer was my first taste of the horror genre, and the idea of deliberately evoking the sensation of things that you would ordinarily do anything to avoid seemed wonderfully perverse.  At ten I couldn’t analyze this sensation, but it cuts right to the heart of the genre’s subversive potential, its capacity to critique our complacency and lack of awareness, our absurd notion that we can control life and avoid discomfort.

At the same time that horror tore away such illusions, it offered a kind of magical protection from the ugliness it invoked, thus the opposite of the lurid newspaper accounts of Richard Speck raping and murdering eight nurses: the knowledge that it was all make-believe.

A few days later I delicately suggested that it might be worth a return trip to the Fox when the attraction opened, but my mother shot the idea down with the assurance that I was far, far too young for such things.

By the time I caught up with Twisted Nerve, 41 years later, my expectations had lowered considerably. It has little in the way of a reputation. It is the sole genre outing of the Boulting Brothers. (In fact, several years later, another parental moviegoing error revolved around another Boulting Brothers’ film, the desperately-trying-to-be-sexually-hip There’s a Girl in my Soup.)

Still I was a little disappointed by how little the film delivered on the promise of the nasty trailer. But then, to have a taste for horror movies is to be accustomed to disappointment.

Twisted Nerve was written by Leo Marks, best remembered for the screenplay of Michael Powell’s brilliant 1960 Peeping Tom (a film I actually did manage to see at a very impressionable age).  Twisted Nerve’s screenplay is a remix of the central elements of that earlier film: the protagonist is a young man with emotional problems rooted in family relationships, that turn him into a serial killer. In both films this protagonist shares a large house with a truly good-hearted young woman (Anna Massey in the Powell film, Hayley Mills in the Boulting), who is able to sense both the young man’s woundedness (although not its dark dimensions)  and his beauty. Also living there is the girl’s mother, in the first a blind alcoholic who senses the young man’s threat, and in the second a still-beautiful woman afflicted with sexual frustration who is successfully deceived by the boy. In both films the boy’s apparent innocence conceals a monstrous destructive capacity that the young woman herself is unable to see until it is almost too late.

Where the psychopathology of Mark Lewis in Peeping Tom is rendered with precision and coherence, rooted in the psychological torture he suffered at the hands of his experimental psychologist father, the mind of Martin Durnley, Twisted Nerve’s hatchet wielding psycho, makes little sense on either a psychological or dramatic level.

There is a rather patient and detailed setup, involving Durnley’s relationship with his mother, and a second identity he creates of a retarded boy-man, apparently to win the sympathy of the Hayley Mills character. And this seems to be connected intriguingly to Martin being babied by his mother. But it’s wrapped inside an absurd and apparently tacked-on idea about chromosonal abnormality. It appears as though a well crafted and wickedly subversive script was given a clueless rewrite that rendered it senseless, then directed by someone who had never actually watched a psychological thriller. Even the hatchet killing – only one! – makes minimal impact. For a while, as a drama the film strikes an appealing tone, sustaining the script’s jabs at British manners, but dissolves into a mess of incoherent motivation for its psychopath (are they really suggesting that he is killing people because his brother has Down’s syndrome?), and is further undone by the filmmakers’ lack of interest in the violent thrills dishonestly promised in the release campaign. Makes one appreciate Peeping Tom all the more for Michael Powell’s willingness to go all the way with the cruelty and violence of Marks’ vision.

That a trailer could somehow take such a mild film and turn it into something so terrifying and memorable says something about the power of editing, but perhaps even more about the impressionability of children. No doubt the horror film is a means to return to a childhood sense of terror. A promise not often fulfilled.


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