“The Turn of the Screw” must be second only to the name Honore de Balzac in the sophomoric literary dirty joke department. Of course this is all childish nonsense but not, perhaps, when you are dealing with the leering nonsense of The Nightcomers, which strips away all of the artistry of the Henry James original and leaves us with a hairy, overweight, naked and sweating Marlon Brando brutally kneading Stephanie Beacham’s breasts into new shapes.
The failed concept of The Nightcomers is to tell the story of what happened before the ambiguous events of “The Turn of the Screw”, quite possibly the most famous ghost story ever written. This is exactly where the filmmakers should’ve stopped. The entire point of James’ novella lies in it’s portrayal of narrative ambiguity. Not only the old Edmund Wilson argument of whether or not the Governess was mad or if young Miles and Flora were really under the spectral influence of Quint and Miss Jessel, but also the very notion of the narrative form itself. James’ story is presented as a manuscript written by a woman long dead, read years later. James’ use of the frame around the narrative creates a distance between the events and our understanding of them. It’s so ambiguous that there are questions about the questions.
More than that, there remains a powerful sense of mystery over the fates of the former Governess Miss Jessel and her lover, the groundskeeper Peter Quint. James’ artistic success is the creation of a relationship between the two and the children that appears in the reader’s imagination more than the page itself.
Not if you watch The Nightcomers, however. Here we get to see just how young Miles and Flora may have become the little monsters in the novella. Brando plays Peter Quint who was once their late father’s coachman but is now assigned simple groundskeeping duties and to “look after” the others. Brando plays Quint as a kind of overgrown and irresponsible child. Filled with a happy-go-lucky innocence and ignorant cruelty, Brando’s Quint is the main, if not only, reason to watch this film.
With an initially shocking Irish accent, Brando is as hypnotic as he ever was; flying kites with the kids, showing them how to torture small animals without remorse, and subtly filling their minds with twisted notions of sex and death. The children idolize Quint and hang on his every word as we do since Brando can make lying down look like a dramatic event. Unfortunately, Quint doesn’t realize that the youngsters may take his words at face value when he says, “If you really love someone, sometimes you want to kill them.”
The film contrasts Quint’s sly and mischievous behavior with the children during the day with his carnal and violent sexual relationship with Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) at night. Beacham, in her first major role, plays the Governess as a woman who cannot control her masochistic and submissive urges even though she is disgusted by them. She longingly waits in bed at night for the arrival of Quint, even though she finds him repulsive. Though this material may have seemed shocking on the page, the way Winner stages and films it renders it all quaint and tacky. A little bondage for Miss Jessel as well as a gorilla-like Brando pawing her naked body seem more like a preview for a “Last Tango” to come. What is supposed to seem nasty and perverse comes across as nothing more than a lame sex game.
Which is exactly how the children view it. Miles watches their nightly couplings and in the script’s only really disturbing idea, the young lad decides to try out the bondage on his sister. Flora initially goes for the game but refuses to take off her clothes even though as Miles says, “We took a bath together only last week!”
Winner stays on the safe side of the street here as well and this is a shame since it’s in these ideas that something powerfully subversive could’ve been created. There’s no doubt that this material was the reason for the casting of slightly older actors as Miles and Flora. The children in James’ story are more like seven- or eight-years-old, but both Christopher Ellis and Verna Harvey are much older. Harvey in fact was 19 at the time of filming but is remarkably convincing as a girl of about 12 or 13.
In the end, the tragedy cannot be averted, not even by the disapproving housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Thora Hind). The children promptly use Miss Jessel’s admission that she cannot swim against her and Quint meets his maker like St. Sebastian in a tweed jacket. The story comes full circle as a new Governess arrives.
Technically the film is very well done. Robert Paynter’s cinematography gives a hint at the wonderful work he will do later, capturing the English countryside in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. The locations and dreary images seem very much like the Hammer horror films of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and are only hampered by the overuse of the zoom lens by director Winner. Unlike the more creative use of the zoom by someone like Mario Bava, where the device is used to create a sense of optic exploration, Winner simply uses it to establish the scene or to lazily follow an actor around. Altogether this is a genre that the director seems very uncomfortable within. His Charles Bronson thrillers Death Wish and The Mechanic were much more convincing.
Lionsgate’s DVD of The Nightcomers is a very good enhanced transfer with fine color and Jerry Fielding’s excellent music score very clear even in Dolby Monaural audio. The main extra is the director’s commentary by Michael Winner, who spends most of the 97-minute running time telling funny stories about the eccentricities of Marlon Brando and how he was able to work with the notoriously difficult star. I would’ve liked at least a few brief interviews with the other cast members like Beacham, Ellis, and Harvey, but it’s quite surprising enough to get a commentary on a smaller title like this.
If you’ve never seen Jack Clayton’s film version of the James story, The Innocents or are just a fan of Brando, The Nightcomers will be mildly entertaining. Winner does manage a few interesting images and the scene where Brando discovers Miss Jessel’s rigor mortised body is very disturbing. It’s not a terrible film just an incredibly unnecessary one.