The last movie Marlon Brando made before his twin 1972 triumphs of The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, which briefly returned him to prominence as one of the world’s most revered actors, The Nightcomers is a strange film on many levels. Not only is The Nightcomers a prequel—which in 1971 was still a rarity in cinema—but it’s a prequel to a book, rather than a previous movie. Written by Michael Hastings and produced and directed by Michael Winner, the film imagines what events might have preceded the narrative of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. Additionally, while Brando has top billing and a colorful role, the real leads of the picture are juvenile players Christopher Ellis and Verna Harvey, portraying children who fall under the spell of Brando’s character. (After all, these children will eventually become the protagonists of The Turn of the Screw.) The final major aspect of The Nightcomers’ strangeness is its brazen juxtaposition of eroticism and youth—The Nightcomers features bondage, nudity, and psychosexual abuse in the context of a story about children navigating adolescence.
Set in late 19th century England, the picture begins when a wealthy aristocrat (Harry Andrews) leaves two orphaned children—of whom he is the nominal guardian—in the care of a housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Thora Bird), and a nanny/teacher, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham). The master of the house wants nothing to do with the raising of Flora (Harvey) and Miles (Ellis). Thus, the children have the run of a country estate with only the two women and a handyman, Peter Quint (Brando), for company. Peter is a crass Irishman more interested in play than work, so he fascinates the kids with his imaginative games, tall tales, and wild lectures about the nature of life and death. (“If you really love someone,” he says, “sometimes you really want to kill them.”) Much to the chagrin of the stern Mrs. Grose, the children spend most of their time with Quint, often engaging in dangerous shenanigans at his urging.
The estate takes on a darker color when night falls, because Peter regularly visits Miss Jessel’s bedroom for rough sexual encounters—and since the children are so enthralled by Peter, Miles watches one such encounter through a peephole and attempts to re-create the bondage-filled tryst with Flora. Eventually, the children’s obsession with Peter has tragic consequences
The Nightcomers has many peculiarities that could be described as flaws, such as the absence of a clearly defined leading character and the lack of satisfying psychological explanations for the extreme behavior of Peter, Miss Jessel, and the children. Yet as a hypothesis for what led to events in The Turn of the Screw, the film is highly imaginative. It is also effective as thriller. The sex scenes between Beacham and Brando are bracing, and the climax is horrific. As for Brando, while his lilting brogue may strike some viewers as overdone, the actor smoothly incarnates a multidimensional character. Ellis and Harvey blend innocence and wickedness effectively, while Bird strikes the correct uptight posture. Beacham, alas, is the picture’s weak link thanks to her superficial performance. That said, her eye-popping curves make the lust that drives the story highly believable.
The Nightcomers: GROOVY