Monday, May 13, 2019

Retro Review: THE NIGHTCOMERS (1972)

(UK - 1972) 

Directed by Michael Winner. Written by Michael Hastings. Cast: Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Harry Andrews, Thora Hird, Verna Harvey, Christopher Ellis, Anna Palk. (R, 97 mins)

A prequel before the term was part of the moviegoing lexicon, 1972's THE NIGHTCOMERS details the events that took place prior to those depicted in THE INNOCENTS, the 1961 film based on Henry James' classic 1898 gothic horror novella The Turn of the Screw. In THE INNOCENTS, co-scripted by Truman Capote, Deborah Kerr starred as Miss Giddens, a governess in charge of Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), two orphaned young children essentially left on their own at a foreboding estate by their cold-hearted uncle (Michael Redgrave), who became their guardian and has never had any interest in raising them. The estate is haunted by the ghosts of their previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) and groundskeeper Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde), and Miss Giddens comes to believe the ghosts are attempting to possess the children. Much changed as far as what could be shown in movies in the decade since THE INNOCENTS, and THE NIGHTCOMERS, directed by Michael Winner (THE MECHANIC, DEATH WISH) and just released on Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber (because physical media is dead) takes full advantage of it. It delves with little restraint into the sordid backstory of Quint and Miss Jessel, buoyed by ability to explicitly depict things that could barely be hinted at in 1961, and given Winner's tendency to revel in being a provocateur, that really seems to be the only reason for THE NIGHTCOMERS' existence.

Winner and screenwriter Michael Hastings (THE ADVENTURERS) are hampered by the fact that the scares are limited because the horror elements--the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel haunting the estate--don't yet exist in context. They're just people here, and with little in the way of horror, the filmmakers have to go for unease and discomfort. Miles (Christopher Ellis) and Flora (Verna Harvey) are left in the care of Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and cranky but doting housekeeper Mrs. Grose, played here by Thora Hird (and by Megs Jenkins in THE INNOCENTS), with specific instructions by their absent uncle (Harry Andrews) to basically leave him alone unless there's a medical issue with one of the kids and he'll check in every six months or so. The kids, particularly Miles, idolize the eccentric, mischievous Quint (Marlon Brando, with long hair and an inconsistent Irish brogue that makes him look and sound like Richard Harris and serves a test run for his MISSOURI BREAKS histrionics), who seems to do little but clown around and indulge in drunken philosophical blather. This angers killjoy Mrs. Grose but falls right in line with Marlon Brando's love of tossing the script, ad-libbing, and doing whatever the hell he feels like doing while the cameras are rolling.

Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship begins with violence as he sexually assaults her in her room, but it soon gives way to consensual sadomasochism as the prim, proper governess finds she enjoys bondage, rough sex and being hog-tied by Quint in a couple of sweat-soaked sex scenes that prefigure the kind of explicit material in Brando's still-controversial turn in the next year's LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Miles spends a lot of time following Quint around, and after he spies on the pair's carnal games, he convinces Flora to role-play the same kind of S&M activities as they naively mimic intercourse, or as Miles calls it when they're caught by Mrs. Grose, "doing sex." There's enough "problematic" content in THE NIGHTCOMERS that Woke Twitter's Class of 2019 would have a field day cancelling Winner and Brando permanently, but the impact of Quint and Miss Jessel's relationship on the children was enough in 1972 to necessitate making Miles and Flora older than they were in THE INNOCENTS, simply due to the increased sexual element.

Marlon Brando and Michael Winner on the set of THE NIGHTCOMERS

The casting doesn't really work, as Flora should be about nine years old if this is purported to take place before THE INNOCENTS, yet Harvey is 19 and looks it, plus Flora is supposed to be the younger sibling but Harvey is clearly older than Ellis, who was only 14 at the time of filming (it's interesting that Winner felt the need to address the more overt sexuality of the story by casting an adult female as the younger sibling, but determined the material was acceptable enough for a 14-year-old boy to be shown hog-tying his sister and engaging in clothed play-thrusting on his of-age co-star). Feeling like a lesser Hammer or Amicus production of the period, THE NIGHTCOMERS is a slow-burner that never really ignites until an admittedly unsettling climax, and while it's developed a cult following over the years, it's really only notable as Brando's sole foray into horror until 1996's THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Though a few prominent critics were fond of it, THE NIGHTCOMERS was a box office flop upon its release by Avco Embassy in February 1972. It did, however, mark the last film in Brando's free-falling "lost years" phase that dated back to the mid-1960s, as THE GODFATHER would be in theaters a month later, giving the notoriously difficult actor a triumphant comeback for the ages and a second Oscar.

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