Based on the chilling classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (filmed as The Innocents in 1961 with Deborah Kerr), The Nightcomers was Marlon Brando’s first film in nearly three years.
He and director Michael Winner both went without salaries because money was so tight. In fact, Winner raised the £250,000 shooting budget privately as no film company would touch the project.
Intended as a prologue to James’ 19th-century story – and described by Winner as “an intellectual horror film” – the story set out to explain how sinister Irish manservant Peter Quint (Brando) and the governess at Bly House, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham), corrupted the two recently orphaned children, Miles and Flora, for the possession of whose souls their ghosts waged a tug-of-war with the new governess (in the book).
There is no Victorian-era sexual frustration in a genteel bosom here – just sexual perversion forced on a half-reluctant governess by a wholly evil valet, which infects the children (and leads to their bumping off their corruptors).
The sadomasochistic affair sees Quint slipping into Miss Jessel’s bedroom at night, trussing her up with rope and taking his pleasure while little Miles watches secretly like an infant voyeur before embarking on his own jeux interdits with his sister.
Unfortunately, when the kids begin roping each other up in an attempt to “do sex” together, what was intended to repulse us with intimations of immorality merely arouses laughter at the clumsiness of the make-believe.
Verna Harvey is a convincing Flora, but a bad error in casting Christopher Ellis as Miles results in a modern schoolboy who would fit easily into Holland Park Comprehensive.
Thora Hird plays the housekeeper Mrs Grose, who tries to keep Quint and Miss Jessel apart, and Harry Andrews makes two brief appearances as the children’s absentee guardian.
The Nightcomers was filmed on location at Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire and the surrounding area, including Duxford, Swaffham Prior and the Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits.
At one point during filming, Brando asked Michael Winner to have the script rewritten. Winner replied, “Marlon, you’ve had the script for nine months. We haven’t got time to redo the whole bloody thing now, thank you very much. It’s a low-budget film, and you had a great deal of time to make this speech. It’s no good making it standing in a country lane in Cambridgeshire with Francis Ford Coppola behind the barrier with the crowd watching. This is not the time, dear, I’m terribly sorry”.
Master of the House