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Nightcomers, The

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Network Distributing
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Michael Winner
Marlon Brando
Stephanie Beacham
Thora Hird
Harry Andrews
Verna Harvey
Bottom Line: 

A particular species of psychological intensity and the quiet ratcheting-up of dread and tension are conveyed to the reader by the very title of Henry James’s classic ghost story novella “The Turn of the Screw” … an infinitely subtle variation on the popular literary genre in which the possibility of supernatural evil as a reality manifests itself concomitantly in the implied moral corruption of two innocent young orphaned children, Miles and Flora, who, after the death of their absent parents, live in seclusion with their matronly housekeeper Mrs Grose amid the sheltered confines of the great manor at Bly House. The story’s chilling effect was later to be equalled (with varnishing brush strokes, delicately applied, of a symbolic Freudian nature) in Jack Clayton’s 1961 Gothic masterpiece “The Innocents”, a film adaptation of James’s professed ‘pot-boiler’ that made the unspecified, repressed Victorian desires of its Governess heroine Miss Giddens, played by Deborah Kerr, as scary and as potentially dangerous to her young charges as the spectral evil she just might have been courting during the looming visitations of perverted masculine sexuality encountered by Miss Giddens, throughout the film, in the figure of Peter Wyngarde’s menacing, fleetingly glimpsed ghostly incarnation of Peter Quint - the dead valet of Bly’s former master. James’s story goes to a great deal of effort to limit elucidating the specifics about exactly how the corruption of the two children is supposed to have been achieved by Quint and his young schoolmistress lover Miss Jessel, if indeed it ever was … and it is even more reticent about what exactly that corruption consists of, leaving the reader to ponder all sorts of unwholesome possibilities in his or her imagination that are probably a great deal worse than anything James could have openly written of in 1898 when the story was first published. James provides no definitive interpretation of the odd events that seem to threaten the two parentless children Miss Giddens has been sent to tutor; details are left tantalisingly unstated, just as they mostly are in Clayton’s masterful film adaptation based on William Archibald’s 1950 stage play where the focus is shifted unmistakably onto the Governess’s own suspect psychology, and anomalies in her behavioural profile that imply her zealous ‘love’ of the children to be a sublimation of the sexual attraction she feels for the guardian who first employs her to look after them.

Throughout the story’s history the interpretative pendulum has swung back and forth between straightforward readings that situate the tale as a ghost story about a bona fide supernatural haunting and possession, and those which privilege a more psychological interpretation, the most famous instance of which being American literary critic Edmund Wilson’s Freudian analysis of the story, first proposed in his essay titled "The Ambiguity of Henry James", published in 1934 and later revised in 1948. James’s novella employs all sorts of strategies for obfuscating the kinds of specifics that usually go a long way towards rendering any work transparent. Instead it sets out to make the task of interpretation almost impossible. Not only is the author’s prose throughout it cloaked in a carefully layered mantle of indistinctness, but the main narrative device James uses in the tale’s prologue is deliberately rendered in order to veil the entire story in a hazy enveloping cloud of anecdotal hearsay and myth: the main descriptions of events in the story are located as third hand narrative, based on happenings that are alleged to have occurred nearly half-a-century earlier, and ultimately couched in someone else’s account (not the initial narrator’s), written from memory, of being told about the (unreliable) statement that was originally given about these incidents by Bly’s former Governess, sometime after she herself is said to have experienced them. As Sir Christopher Frayling writes in his BFI monograph on the Clayton film when discussing the film’s literary source, “The Turn of the Screw” becomes ‘an essay on the nature of authorship, on the point of view of the writer and the narrator, and indeed of the story itself.’ The movie could not, for obvious reasons, replicate these giddying levels of displaced narrative and authorial discourse, but it could search the depths of psychological dissonance implied by Wilson’s rejection of the supernatural essence of the story, and play the two interpretations off against each other.

Consequently we never know for sure in “The Innocents” whether to accept the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel at face value as supernatural entities, and whether or not to accept Miss Giddens fanatical belief that the children are indeed truly threatened with being forced to re-enact Quint and Jessel’s love affair from beyond the grave as their Governess suspects; or whether we are simply to interpret these beliefs as manifestations of Miss Giddens’ own unheeded id and repressed sexual hysteria. Ambiguity, then, is central to any kind of reading of this intrinsically opaque narrative; it is fundamental to everything that makes it work at all, whether as a traditional ghost story or as an allegory of Victorian mores, sexual hypocrisy and cant -- or more likely as both.

Enter Michael Winner’s 1972 movie prequel “The Nightcomers”, made from a screenplay, later novelised by its writer Michael Hastings, in which this necessary intangibility seems to have been entirely misconstrued to have been an intrinsic fault of James’s original source; a fault that has left lots of egregious loose ends that the filmmakers now see it as their duty to conclusively tie up in the most prosaically dull way imaginable. The whole premise of this film seems rooted in the absurd idea that by doing this it is performing some kind of a service for us, ‘filling in the gaps’ left by James’s story and those which went unaddressed by Clayton’s film version, and providing a physical explanation for everything that happened at Bly before Miss Giddens actually arrived there. With this aim in hand Hastings’ screenplay sets about lugubriously demonstrating the nature of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship, with each other and with the children; it tries  to show us conclusively how the children came to be ‘corrupted’ through their association with the deceased couple; and how Quint and Jessel eventually come to die. In other words the entire raison d'être of “The Nightcomers” consists in it unknowingly trampling all over the artistry of the original work! It might just be unique in cinema in that it manages to traduce the excellence of two outstanding works of art at the same time -- James’s novella and Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of it -- while adding nothing of any artistic worth itself; this despite Marlon Brando being nominated for a BAFTA for his cringe-worthy performance as Peter Quint, whom he seems to prefer to play like Quint was some kind of affable Irish tinker from a DH Lawrence novel ,who just happens to go in for a spot of BDSM- style restraining rope play with Miss Jessel on the side (an unusually poor early performance in an underwritten role, from Stephanie Beacham), but who actually much prefers delivering a series of mumbled semi-incomprehensible anecdotes that provide Brando interminable opportunities for improvising his own dialogue, an indulgence that Winner was apparently happy to accept and to go along with.

One of the first things usually mentioned on the rare occasions when this film comes up for discussion, is the nature of the supposedly explicit sex in it, and Stephanie Beacham’s risqué nude scenes. In fact, the depiction of the sexual side of the relationship between Quint and Jessel dates the film even more heavily these days (in this post-Fifty Shades world we now live in where we’re all meant to take someone’s personal preference for being hog-tied and whipped in our stride) than anything else about it: these scenes are obviously meant to be shocking to the viewer, with a canny Winner clearly going all out for the early-seventies censor-baiting and controversy-courting ‘sleazy but arty’ market, then in the process of being cornered by Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” and Sam Peckinpah “Straw Dogs”; but in fact, all that happens is Beacham gets tied to the bed or trussed up with rope a few times, and a consensually squeezed nipple is about the only actual physical harm she comes to until later, when she attempts to verbally taunt Quint near the conclusion of the film and he reacts by slapping her in the face and trying to throw her from one of the towers in the garden. All of this, including the bondage sessions, is being secretly watched by the youngsters the whole time, and then rehearsed (fully clothed) in their children’s games afterwards, without either Quint or Jessel ever being aware of it; yet this still fails to have the shock impact you’d think it would have, as the children have to be made much older in this version of the story in order for Winner to be able to get away with staging the scenes in the first place. Verna Harvey, who plays Flora, was nineteen when the film was shot, and is much taller than her supposedly older brother, played by Christopher Ellis.

The fact that both actors playing Miles and Flora look like older teenagers rather than little children makes the characters’ naive hero worship and total unquestioning acceptance of every half-considered mumbled banality that dribbles out of Quint’s mouth all the more puzzling … which itself entails that the film fails, in the end, to explain anything much at all about why they turn out as they do. Brando’s Quint comes across more as a gentle buffoon with a childish streak of cruelty about him than the sinister child-molesting pervert whom Miss Giddens later assumes has involved the children in his kinky sex play (in fact, the worst he gets up to in front of them in terms of corrupting the kids is letting them watch him force a toad to smoke a cigarette until it explodes!) and Miss Jessel is a fairly dull sort whose affair with Quint appears to be conducted for want of anything better to do with herself when she’s not in the schoolroom conducting rote learning exercises with Miles and Flora. In reality it is Thora Hird’s Bly housekeeper Mrs Grose who becomes the real villain of the piece in this account of events. She’s made into the film’s interfering, busybody representative of rigid Victorian class divisions and religious platitudes and hypocrisy, who disapproves of the dalliance between Jessel and Quint and the effect it might be having on the children even before she realises that Miles has seen more than a few things he shouldn’t have.

 The implication is that she later turns Quint into far more of a villain than he really ever was when she relates events to Jessel’s eventual replacement, thus colluding  in the process of abetting Miss Giddens’ own hang-ups. We learn that the children’s parents were never at home much even when they were alive, and that Quint the valet has consequently become a sort of slouching surrogate father for them, his roughish Irish blarney providing them with far more education in life’s mysteries than Miss Jessel’s dull schooling program. Mrs Grose though, continues to make up stories about where the children’s dead parents are and what they’re at that moment doing, unaware that Quint has already bluntly told them the whole truth of the matter concerning their parents’ demise. There’s a satire on Victorian morality and religion buried in here somewhere, as the children henceforth seem to like nothing better than deliberately soliciting stories about their parents’ current whereabouts from Mrs Grose that they know in advance to be false, while Quint simply tells them frankly that there is no such thing as Heaven, no Hell and that people end up in the ground and don’t go anywhere after death! Again, it’s understandable that they relate to Quint, given their real parents’ absence; but it’s pushing things to have their outlook on the world become so entirely warped, beyond anything Quint actually intends (he’s just telling them how he thinks it is) that Miles in particular becomes either deranged or psychopathic, fantasising about murdering Mrs Grose on the archery range at one point after Quint tells him his rather dubious theory that closing his eyes and imagining the outcome he wants will make his aim better! The eventual fate of the two misguided lovers is decided for them when the children combine past statements made by Quint about his philosophy of life and come up with the conclusion that Mrs Grose’s attempts to separate the pair can be circumvented if they are both killed, since the two will then remain together at Bly forever.

Everything is all spelled out for the viewer with a crude, reductive simplicity, yet in of its self the film is well-enough made, with cinematographer Robert Paynter (“An American Werewolf in London”) suffusing Sawston Hall (the 16th centuryCambridgeshire estate providing the film with its Bly House locations) in a golden autumnal glow, while “Straw Dogs” composer Jerry Fielding supplies a similarly rich, evocative (if over applied) orchestral score. Perhaps the prospect of “Last of the Summer Wine” stalwart Thora Hird sharing scenes with Marlon Brando is still intriguing enough to attract an audience, but Winner is no Ken Russell even if he is trying desperately to appeal to the same viewers who'd flocked to see “Women in Love” at the time by combining lush period detail with lashings of kinky violence and sex. Winner’s direction is merely adequate in an undemonstrative movie-of-the-week kind of way, while Michael Hastings -- who was to return to the fiction of Henry James in 1998 with his PBS TV adaptation of the author’s novel and play “The American”, and where he deviated from James’ text again by incorporating sexual scenes into a story famous even by Victorian standards for its reticence on the subject -- never finds an adequate reason to justify the conceit of this mishandled exercise in diminishing returns.

The Network Distributing Blu-ray disc, released as part of the company’s on-going British Film range, presents a crisp HD transfer with adequate mono audio. The only extras consist of a theatrical trailer and a ‘teaser trailer’ along with a gallery of stills.       

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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