After years of being unavailable on home video in North America (laserdisc excepted), the curious can finally see this marginally notorious Marlon Brando footnote basically a speculative prequel to Henry James' classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw (creepily filmed in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents).
Made just before Brando snagged the role of Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather, The Nightcomers was written by former playwright and TV writer Michael Hastings, and according to director Michael Winner, no one wanted to make the film until Brando committed to the project; the script provided Brando with an intriguingly troubled character who exploits a household run by an absentee landlord the children's detestable uncle and with a flippant attitude, he clouds the minds of the orphans until he realizes it's his influence that's shaped their murderous philosophy, thereby setting them up as ready-to-go tormentors for the governess in James' novel and Clayton's film.
According to director Winner, this was screenwriter Hastings' feature film debut, although he was also one of the scribes who adapted and co-wrote one of the greatest sleaze eoics ever made: Harold Robbins' The Adventurers (1970).
Nightcomers, however, presented a different challenge: extract from Henry James' novel the antecedent psychological elements, and craft a related and compelling narrative that could stand on its own, yet reflect the commercial openness that permitted a number of provocative films to be made and released to audiences intrigued by more graphcally depicted subject matter.
That openness or the fact filmmakers kept pushing the limits of sex and brutality made the seventies an ideal time for directors like Ken Russell and Michael Winner to indulge in their own fixations and fetishes; Russell seemed hooked on shocking prudish audiences and being a naughty boy with his usual assaults on Catholicism (particularly nuns), whereas Winner's tastes often encompassed stories in which characters would at some point cross their own demarcation points of morality and become the monster they despised, or long denied.
Nightcomers was part of Winner's wave of provocative/exploitive films, but unlike The Mechanic (1972), Scorpio (1973), The Stone Killer (1973), and Death Wish (1974), it wasn't set in the present day, and seemed a break from the police crime thrillers and revenge sagas that were in vogue.
(Mechanic is perhaps less so among the group, and seems closer to Nightcomers in that the real drama came from the battle between an arrogant snot who sought to learn everything from a master criminal, and using his newly acquired skills, tried to assume his mentor's position, wealth, and reputation something Brando's character, the unrefined gardener Peter Quint, attempts to achieve with the orphaned children, only to be fooled and smothered by the little monsters, and succumb to a fate that's tragic, ironic, and Reevesian bleak.)
As a satisfying period suspense-drama, however, Nightcomers is pretty flat and dull, and that may be due in part to having the vicious S&M relationship between Quint and the children's governess, Ms. Jessel, form the movie's centerpiece; both the script, direction, and performances fail to explain the reason for the couple's ongoing masochism, and all the characters do is play nice & civil in the daytime, and play with rope at night; in constant denial of any genuine love, their relationship can only stagnate, disintegrate, and wither away.
Most characters are neither likeable nor sympathetic (the housekeeper is particularly myopic of the children's ill behaviour, making her the supidest of the lot), and Winner dwells too much on the incremental nuances meant to trace the children's emerging power over the adults.
The most shocking sequence has young Miles watching through a window the trussing-up of Jessel, with Quint subsequently loosening his belt as he prepares to force his priapic offering; knowing how far Quint and Jessel went between Winner's careful edit points renders the kids' re-enactment pretty disturbing, and we share in the housekeeper's horror when she finds the siblings running about the mansion in tethers after trying to make sex.' (According to Winner, the children's age is officially pre-pubescent, but the casting of older actors reduces some of the ick factor, and repositions audience perceptions as a pair of vague teenagers/young adults.)
Brando's performance isn't the magical thing fans might be hoping for, and Winner, in his superb commentary track for this DVD, explains how Brando really needed a decent role after being involved in a series of unmemorable films like Bedtime Story, The Chase, The Appaloosa, A Countess from Hong Kong, Candy, and The Night of the Following Day roles that intrigued him more than the films themselves, or projects that allowed him to work with some great actors and directors in differing genres.
The photography is quite lovely, though the lighting continuity is fuzzy during several nighttime shots, and it's overly bright in some interior scenes. Jerry Fielding provides another intriguing score for Winner - along with Sam Peckinpah, Winner's movies yielded some of the best film music written during the seventies - and the music provides needed empathy for the emotionally repressed leading characters.
It's a pity the composer isn't given any attention in the Winner's commentary track, but Brando fans will be engrossed by the myriad anecdotes (they're funny, amusing, and give some insight into the strong will Winner needed to balance Brando's quirks with an efficiently trained cast and crew) and Winner's own self-reflections as a filmmaker, thereby giving some insight into the director's persona (which could be classified as a kind of impatient British Paul Verhoeven).
There are also recollections of the locations, a curious visit from Coppola, shooting the naughty scenes, and an interesting view on why Stephanie Beacham's career sort of floundered between derivative horror films until her appearance as a snotty bitch in TV's The Colbys and Dynasty, in the eighties.
The transfer is first-rate, and Winner's willingness to provide a video intro and a pretty consistent commentary track (extracted and edited from the lengthy video footage) proves this marginalized icon of British film ought to participate in further DVDs of his work, given his association with some very strong actors, and controversial genre entries.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan