Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw served as source material for Jack Clayton’s classic horror film The Innocents (1961). Michael Winner’s 1971 The Nightcomers is a prequel to James’ novella, and while it’s no classic, it does offer a capsule version of some attitudes prevalent at the time it was made, as well as a look at what Marlon Brando was doing one year before his career revival as Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
The conceit of The Nightcomers is that it offers an explanation what happened before The Turn of the Screw—in particular, how the household came to be in the state it was in when the governess Miss Giddens arrives. As this is a film from the early 1970s, it’s no spoiler to say that the corruption of the two supposedly innocent children who are to be Miss Giddens’ charges has a lot to do with sex.
As The Nightcomers opens, we see the unnamed Master of the House (Harry Andrews) declaring his lack of interest in caring for Flora (Verna Harvey) and Miles (Christopher Ellis), children of his now-deceased brother, and making arrangements to ditch the lot of them. At the same time, the Master’s valet, Peter Quint (Brando, sporting perhaps the worst accent since Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai) is good-naturedly romping with the children. Things quickly take a darker turn, however, when Quint puts a lighted cigar in the mouth of a frog, with unfortunate consequences (horrifying Flora but not Miles, who hangs on Quint’s every word).
Sure enough, it doesn’t take 15 minutes before Quint is squeezing the breast of the apparently sleeping governess, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham), because who needs consent when you’re Marlon Brando? At the same moment, Miles awakes and sits bolt upright, as if he has some kind of supernatural awareness of what’s going on elsewhere in the house. The next day Miles and Flora sass the elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird), while speaking respectfully to Quint, and that gives you an idea of the current state of affairs in this household. The departed Master didn’t actually specify who was to be in charge of the children or the household, but Quint is quite happy to step into that role (officially, he’s the gardener since there’s no need for a valet).
Miss Jessel originally appears to be the very image of buttoned-up Victorian propriety, teaching the children to say their prayers and to speak respectfully to their elders (something they put to good use when the second governess arrives), while Brando is so explicitly a rebel against the existing social order that he might as well be wearing a leather jacket and riding a motorcycle. Again, this is a 1970s film, so you know whose point of view is going to prevail, and you can probably guess how Brando’s rebellion will be embodied. Sure enough, soon Quint and Miss Jessel are going at it hot and heavy (ropes and explicit violence are involved), not entirely with her consent, because men always know best in these matters (#sarcasm). Miles is spying on them, and re-enacts some of what he sees with his sister, although he doesn’t really know what it’s all about.
If you’re feeling squicked out by now, or more generally if you just believe that no means no, you might want to forget about ever watching this movie. It was positively reviewed upon initial release, and Brando was nominated for a BAFTA, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I guess you had to be there. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Nightcomers is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include two audio commentaries, by director Michael Winner and film historian Kat Ellinger, an introduction by Winner (90 sec.) (spoiler alert—he really likes Marlon Brando!), a teaser and trailer for this film, and trailers for three other films.