Video Nasties: Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)

Video Nasties: Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)

Often cited as the film with the most alternate titles, Twitch of the Death Nerve (AKA: A Bay of Blood, AKA: Chain Reaction, AKA: A Million Other Titles) remains one of maestro Mario Bava’s disputed classics. This film ended up on the Video Nasty list, partially thanks to Carlo Rambaldi’s special effects work, and also likely due to the marketing of the film itself. Like many of the nasties on the list, Twitch of the Death Nerve was deemed a nasty not because of the message it portrayed, but because of the existence of onscreen, realistic violence.

Filmed in 1971 on an ulta-low budget, Mario Bava acted as cinematographer and director under the title, Thus Do We Live To Be Evil. During the screenwriting phrase, it had been called The Stench of the Flesh, which I’m guessing wouldn’t have struck the fancy of Mary Whitehouse and the BBFC either. Utilizing a child’s wagon for dolly shots and fake tree branches to simulate a forest, Bava was able to pull off a respectable-looking film with plenty of visual interest. While some aspects of the story may come off as a cheap slasher, Bava’s keen eye is unmistakably present throughout, rendering what could have been a schlocky B-movie into a thoughtful film.

When glancing over the plot and the body count, thoughtful may seem like an inaccurate description. The story centers around the murder of a wealthy countess and the ensuing web of death surrounding a claim to her inheritance — a beautiful bay prime for development. Although this film is often considered the grandfather of slashers, the setup is quite different than the typical slasher film. For every victim, there is also a murderous individual looking for something to gain. As the intentions of each character develop and they constantly transition from killers to victims, Twitch of the Death Nerve is like a Shakespearean Giallo.

The film opens with the murder of the countess. Her husband strangles her with a noose, making it look like a suicide. As he is prepping the scene, he is then stabbed by an unseen killer. Eventually, we learn that the husband murdered his wife after the persuasion of a seductress, who was scheming with a real estate agent to develop the countess’ property along the bay. However, it turns out that the countess has a daughter and an illegitimate son, who also stand to gain the inheritance. The countess’ daughter doesn’t have any plans of allowing the neighbors or her newfound half-brother get in the way, so she plots a killing spree of her own with the help of her husband. Shakespearean may be a nice way of saying convoluted.

With a total of 13 deaths and a plot constructed from strings of murders, many consider the film to be nothing more than an excuse for gore. However, I read the film differently. Through selfishness and deceit, the characters climb over one another in a desperate attempt to seize control of the bay. In the end, the husband and wife duo who come out on top  are not rewarded for their efforts. Instead, the films concludes in a shocking manner. While celebrating their victory, the couple’s small children abruptly shoot them down, giggling and joking about how mom and dad play dead very well. My interpretation of the ending is that the children mimicked their parents, learning to imitate their actions without understanding the consequences. Twitch of the Death Nerve communicates a sad truth about violence and greed. The corrupting power of self-interest is passed on to our children, so we must act with decency if we expect a future without violence.

Apparently, some audiences felt differently about the film. Finally released as Chain Reaction in Italy, the film garnered little praise from critics — even those that were fans of Bava’s earlier work. In fact, it is reported that Christopher Lee, whom worked with Bava on The Whip and the Body, was so revolted by the violence that he left the theatre. While the critics were clearly disappointed by Bava’s so-called splatter film, it did receive some recognition for its achievement in effects. At the 1971 Avoriaz Film Festival, where the movie premiered, it received the Best Makeup and Special Effects Award. At the world-renowned Sitges Festival, the effects work earned a “Special Mention” Award.

Ironically, the effects that the film became known for were also at the heart of its condemnation in the United Kingdom. Featuring an up-close and personal throat slash, a machete deep in the face, a spear impaling two lovemaking teens (ala Friday the 13th: Part II), a beheading, and numerous forms of asphyxiation, Bava dispatches the cast in a variety of ways and it all looks pretty real. While it certainly isn’t tame to a modern audience, it’s nothing shocking either. The gore is definitely nasty, but what I found most effective was the manner in which the deaths were shot. Bava does show off the effects work, but he never lingers too long on the graphic details. Instead, Bava captures the stillness just after each death — either by focusing on the ticking of a clock, the gentle lapping of the bay, or the sun’s slow descent. The demise of the characters is not exploited. Rather, the emptiness of the violent acts is emphasized.

Of course, the film’s marketing campaign chose to capitalize on the exploitive concepts of Twitch of the Death Nerve. In the United States, the film was marketed as “The Second Film Rated ‘V’ for Violence!” Another promotional stunt claimed that every patron who entered the theatre to see the film had to pass through “The Final Warning Station,” which had a theatre employee deliver a face-to-face warning about the graphic content. Reportedly, the employees were instructed to say that it may be the last “shock” film the moviegoers would ever want to see. There is no doubt that this buzz surrounding the film helped Bava’s slasher find its way to the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions).

Though Twitch of the Death Nerve was one of the 39 films on the Video Nasty list to be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, an edited version of the film was eventually released in the March of 1980 to UK audiences. It wasn’t until 2010 that the uncut version was actually released, a few years after Video Recordings Act of 1984 was discovered to be unenforceable and almost forty years after the film’s original release.

The moral panic of the 1980’s reflected a deep anxiety towards social unrest and youth-driven violence in the United Kingdom. During a time when the moral majority was in conflict with younger generations, the Video Nasty list only spawned further interest in seeing the films. It is a shame that Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve was thrown aside as filth, because the thematic content provides a great deal of relevant commentary. In the end, Bava’s film encourages communication with the youth and showcases the senselessness of violence.

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