Continuing in our series of scary movies featuring librarians, this week’s feature is Twisted Nerve (1968). SPOILERS AHEAD.
Whistling past horror — although there are some close-ups of bloodied bodies and hatchets along the way — this decidedly odd film tries to sell itself as a psychological drama, with a main argument that homicidal/psychopathic tendencies are passed genetically. It also attempts to relate this issue of “twisted nerves” to Down’s Syndrome — referred to as “Mongolism” in this ’60s film — as the main star/villain of the film, Martin (played by Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, who looks like Zac Efron in a bad wig) has a brother with Down’s Syndrome living in a mental institution. Martin himself reverts to a mentally handicapped personality, “Georgie,” throughout the film.
This (controversial and offensive) link to Down’s Syndrom is so badly pieced together that the filmmakers were forced to add a prologue during post-production, stating “that there is no established, scientific connection between Mongolism and psychotic, or criminal, behavior.”
You’re probably wondering… what in the world is a librarian doing in this film? Enter Hayley Mills as Susan Harper, a lovely young librarian who, in the space of an ill-timed smile, becomes the obsessive target of Martin, who assumes the persona of “Georgie” around Susan in order to gain her trust. Which isn’t very hard to do, because again and again, Susan is shown to be incredibly gullible, naive, and easily manipulated (even blaming herself in one scene for Georgie’s behavior!). It’s a credit to Hayley Mills’ acting skills that she comes across as warm-hearted and intelligent as she does; otherwise, you would just want to scream at the screen constantly about how dumb her actions are. Which, now that I think about it, totally fits the tradition for those watching horror movies, to scream at the young girl who walks into a dark house without telling anyone where she is.
A little over ten minutes into this Class II film, Martin/Georgie embarks upon his obsession by following Susan one morning to the public library, whilst whistling a creepy tune:
Susan is a classic Spirited Young Girl character type: a young, physically attractive, intelligent, and modern girl who is working temporarily at the library. She’s quite open about working for a teaching degree, and she has a conversation later with her mom about school lasting “only one more year.” And along with Ali McGraw in Love Story (1970), she’s one of the best-dressed reel librarians ever! Behold the blonde-haired cuteness:
Our first introduction to Susan in a library setting is a classic one; while looking for a book atop a library ladder, two young lads enjoy the view up her (short) skirt.
It’s interesting to compare how the behavior of these two boys comes off as cheeky, while Martin’s behavior as alter ego Georgie — a young boy’s personality stunted in a man’s body — comes off as creepy. In small moments like this, this movie can be quite clever and intriguing.
Susan enjoys a nice moment of readers’ advisory with the boys:
Susan: Here we are. How about this? [hand them book ]
Boy #1: The Tower of London? Get off. That’s history, isn’t it?
Susan: That’s bloodthirsty enough, even for you, Johnny.
Boy #2: Any girls in it?
Susan: Well, there’s Lady Jane Grey. She gets the chopper.
Boy #2: I’d rather have Lady Chatterley.
Susan: I bet you would. But you take this. You’ll like it. I promise you.
Also during the few library scenes throughout the film, we are introduced to the head librarian, Mr. Groom, who is portrayed as a textbook example of the Anti-Social Male Librarian. Again, so clever to juxtapose this decidedly neurotic reel librarian with the name of “Mr. Groom.” Or maybe they’re hinting he’s horsey?
In this first library scene, Martin/Georgie gets upset at Susan refusing to go to the cinema with him and starts unbuttoning his shirt in distress. While trying to help him button his shirt back up, Susan manages to then upset Mr. Groom, who rushes over with a stack of books, hissing in a loud stage whisper:
Look, I don’t know whether you are dressing or undressing your friend, but I do wish you wouldn’t do it in the public library.
In a later library scene, Martin/Georgie is waiting in the library for Susan after hours. Of course, this rattles Mr. Groom’s cage, who quickly scuttles over to him to point out the library’s been closed for the last 10 minutes. Martin doesn’t waste any Georgie mannerisms on Mr. Groom; rather, he calls him “Ratface” and later yells at the hapless reel librarian to “Get stuffed!”
After Martin/Georgie has killed a few people, the drama increases as Susan finally starts putting all the pieces together. But even after figuring everything out and returning to an empty house all by herself (insert shouting at the screen!), she gets trapped in the attic in an effectively tense climax scene. The film ends on a plaintive note, as Martin/Georgie continues to call out for, “Susan, Susan.”
A memorable reel librarian in an otherwise troubled film.
Here’s a clip of the whistling scene (later echoed in Kill Bill: Vol. I), and our first glimpse of the public library: