Nightcomers, The (1972): Michael Winner’s Prequel to Henry James’ Novel

Michael Winner’s The Nightcomers is a rare film, an ambitious prequel (so to speak) to Henry James’ famed novel, “The Turn of the Screw.”

Stylishly produced and directed, Winner’s creepy horror picture is based on a screenplay by Michael Hastings.

The intriguing film is based on the concept that the two ghosts of James’ book become the narrative’s two main characters. Hastings has created a rather credible chronicle of how the characters die, and why they haunt and corrupt the children. In the original novel, Peter Quint and Margaret Jessel are already dead, due to circumstances never explained by James. As ghosts, the couple returns to claim the souls of two different children, Miles and Flora in Bly House, an affluent British estate at the turn of the century, while their governess tries to save the kids from the evil spirits.

James’ book has inspired many works. William Archibald dramatized the novel into a stage play, “The Innocents,” in 1950. Composer Benjamin Britten and lyricist Myfanwy Piper made the novel into an opera in 1954, and a few years later the play was done on TV with Ingrid Bergman as the governess. In 1961, Truman Capote and playwright Archibald adapted his work into a script that was filmed in England with Deborah Kerr as the governess.

For their version, Hastings and Winner came up with a brilliant piece of casting, offering the role of Peter Quint to Marlon Brando, in the same year that he played the don in “The Godfather.”

The Nightcomers begins similarly to The Turn of the Screw, establishing that the wealthy Master of Bly House (Harry Andrews) is heir to a pair of children. Unable to function as their guardian, he turns them over to his housekeeper and a governess before leaving for London.

It turns out the children, Miles, 12, and sister Flora, 13, have lost their parents in a car accident. Neither the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird), nor the governess, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham), are able to tell the children the truth about the loss of their parents, and the job is left to Quint, a strange, charming Irishman, who was the master’s valet before being demoted to being the handyman and gardener. Quint captivates the children with his crude anecdotes about his past and his willingness to play with them. Gradually, he becomes their mentor and his views on life and death begin to affect their thinking. Quint’s attitude toward death seals his fate, as well as that of Miss Jessel.

Dangerous and playful, he once lights a cigar and places it in the mouth of a toad. As the toad inhales it swells up and eventually explodes. The children are horrified but Quint explains that the toad was ecstatic and thus died happy. Quint persuades them that love and hate are the same thing, that it’s possible to want to kill someone you love, and that the dead simply stay where they are. Young, impressionable, and isolated from outside reality, the kids embrace his malevolent thoughts and insidious philosophy of life

Quint causes more damage, when Miles follows him at night as he creeps into the house and proceeds to the room of the prim and proper Miss Jessel. The frightened woman subjects herself to his sexual molesting. He strips her and ties her hands and feet to the bedposts before beating and making love to her. Qunit’s misconduct is observed by the spying boy, who later relates the experience to his sister, forcing her to submit to similar treatment.

When they are discovered by the horrified Mrs. Grose, she demands to know what they’re doing. Miles simply and cheerfully notes, “We are having sex.” The housekeeper brings the matter to Miss Jessel, who has already found the children too complicated and difficult to handle. The latest in a long line of governesses, Miss Jessel, at first repelled by Quint, realizes that she too, due to loneliness and awakened sexuality, is attracted to him.

Soon, the housekeeper begins to suspect her affair with Quint; Mrs. Grose observes the bruises on the governess’ face. One night Mrs. Grose invades Jessel’s room, thinking Quint might be there. The governess then pulls back the covers on her nude body to welcome her sadomasochistic lover and finds her visitor is not the one expected. Class-conscious and at odds with Quint, Mrs. Grose has reasons to fire both Quint and the governess, worried about the children’s perverse views. Quint has succeeded in corrupting them and his mysterious thoughts are twisted to suit their own reasoning.

The children then come up with a plan to keep Quint and Jessel from leaving, convincing the governess that Quint is waiting for her at a summer house near a beautiful lake. Unable to swim and terrified of water, she makes an uneasy way across the lake in a rowboat, but the children have smashed a hole in the bottom and it sinks, causing Jessel’s horrible death.
The next day, while Quint tries to figure out what to do, he is shot by Miles with an arrow. Trying to stand up, Quint staggers and sinks to his knees, while a smiling Miles observes, “It won’t be long now, Quint,” before shooting another arrow into him. Miles and Flora, pleased with themselves, believe they have united the lovers, and as “the dead stay where they are,” Quint and Jessel will remain with them.

Later on, when Mrs. Grose presents a new governess (Anna Palk), the children look at her with a strange smile on their innocent faces, and as Miles conceals a toad behind his back, we are led to think that the post of the governess will not be an easy or comfortable one.

“The Nightcomers” offers a fascinating, if disturbing speculation on the background of James’ characters. Shot on location in Cambridgeshire, it uses a handsome old country manor. Winner wisely set his Gothic tale in the autumn and winter and the bleakness of the English countryside lends itself to the chilly narrative.

To avoid controversy, the producer decided not to follow the written script and show the children in explicit sexual acts; they’re seen fully clothed and only engaged in tying Flora up. The rest of the sex scenes are nicely modulated, relying on subtle dissolves, which suggest Quint’s bizarre gratification and Miles’ titillation. Robert Paynter’s lensing and Jerry Fielding’s moody score give the picture an atmospheric sense of creepy horror lying just beneath the seemingly gentle and calm surface.

Peter Quint offered Brando one of his more complex and disturbing characters, for which he employs a quiet, devious Irish accent. Brando is particularly spellbinding in his scenes with the children, when he relates his adventures, and viciously aberrant in dealings with the governess. His perverse character is split, both attentive and ruthlessly and bitter. It’s a tribute to Brando’s eloquent performance that he succeeds in making Quint pitiable, frightening, but also likable, or at least relatable.

Credits

An Elliott Kastner-Jay Kanter-Alan Ladd, Jr.-Scimitar production released by Avco Embassy.
Produced and directed by Michael Winner.
Screenplay: Michael Hastings, based on characters from The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.
Camera: Robert Paynter.
Art direction by Herbert Westbrook.
Edited by Frederick Wilson.
Score by Jerry Fielding.

Running time: 96 minutes.

Cast:

Peter Quint (Marlon Brando)
Margaret Jessel (Stephanie Beacham)
Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird)
Flora (Verna Harvey)
Miles (Christopher Ellis)
Master of the House (Harry Andrews)
Governess (Anna Palk)

End Note

I am grateful to Tony Thomas for providing such insightful background information on this picture.

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