Color, 1971, 96 mins. 42 secs.
Directed by Michael Winner
Starring Marlon Brando, Stephanie Beacham, Thora Hird, Harry Andrews, Verna Harvey, Christopher Ellis
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Network (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Lionsgate (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Momentum (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Long The Nightcomersbefore the days of mainstream fan fiction, The Nightcomerswriters would occasionally have fun by coming up with prequels or sequels to famous works of literature, fleshing out the characters found in everything from Jane Eyre to Gone with the Wind. It's been less common to find examples on the big screen, and one of the oddest of these is easily The Nightcomers, an account of the events leading up to Henry James's influential ghost story novella, The Turn of the Screw. Famously filmed in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents, that tale revolves around a governess dealing with the possible hauntings of young children Miles and Flora by the wicked, deceased gardener Quint and former governess Miss Jessel. Many psychological interpretations have been offered about the story over the years, and this film directed by the unlikely choice of Michael Winner (just before his barrage of Charles Bronson hits) came from the pen of Michael Hastings, whose only prior theatrical credit was the flamboyant The Adventurers. The result has been classified as a horror film, though that's mostly by literary association as it's basically a psychosexual drama with a bit of brief (but grotesque) violence at the very end. Of course, the real reason to watch the film is the presence of Marlon Brando, slapping on an Irish accent and warming up for his iconic role the following year in The Godfather.

After the loss of their parents, young Flora (Harvey) and Miles (Ellis) have been sent to the countryside to live with their mostly absent uncle (Theater of Blood's Andrews) and end up under the supervision of the estate's head housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Hird). However, they end up growing far closer to the eccentric Peter Quint (Brandon), who influences them with his bohemian philosophies about life and death. He also becomes lovers with the children's governess, Miss The NightcomersJessel (And Now the Screaming Starts' Beacham), and their kinky bedroom antics have a sinister influence on the children who start to copy their elders in an increasingly dangerous fashion. The Nightcomers

As an actual companion piece to Henry James, this film doesn't really work at all; the character of Flora alone (a young child in the novella) is strangely cast with Harvey, who's 19 years old and absolutely looks it, and as most critics noticed, Miles never goes off to boarding school, a major factor in the novella. However, taken on its own terms the film is a fascinating, perverse little chamber piece with some truly peculiar chemistry between Brando (who would embellish on some of his role here in Last Tango in Paris) and Beacham, who's game for some queasy sex scenes that would have sent most actresses bolting for the door. Easily the best aspect of the film is the superb, pitch-perfect score by the great Jerry Fielding, who had only done one film with Winner before (Lawman) but would remain his composer of choice for many years along with other directors like Sam Peckinpah.

Theatrically released by Embassy Pictures, The Nightcomers has been steadily available on home video in the U.S. and U.K. but still feels like a title that's continued to fly a bit under the radar. The VHS release from Charter wasn't that easy to find, and subsequent releases have been more niche than usual for a major '70s title starring Brando. The first DVD release came in 2002 from U.K. label Momentum, featuring only a theatrical trailer and teaser. A 2007 U.S. DVD from Lionsgate featured a brief video intro by Winner (1m28s) and a The Nightcomersvery good audio commentary by the director covering his admiration for the script, his positive memories of Brando (who enjoyed The Nightcomersshooting the film outside the studio system), the thwarted casting of Vanessa Redgrave, and the issues of photographing Beacham nude, among many other subjects. The now deceased Winner has always been an enjoyable raconteur despite his rather, um, unorthodox views that would be far out of favor these days, and it's a worthy track up there with the one he contributed to The Sentinel. A subsequent Blu-ray release (with a simultaneous DVD reissue) in the U.K. from Network features only the trailer, teaser, and a pdf of promotional material. Fortunately the 2019 release from Kino Lorber (as separate Blu-ray and DVD editions) compiles the essentials in one place (Winner commentary and intro, trailer, and teaser) while adding a new second audio commentary with Diabolique's Kat Ellinger. She notes at the outset that she doesn't want to reiterate anything from the prior commentary and thus avoids production info, instead contextualizing the film as a entry in the British Gothic cycle and noting threads to other significant films of the era (ranging from Girly to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Apart from the odd snafu of attributing The Innocents to Jack Cardiff on a couple of occasions, she keeps everything juggling in the air throughout as she touches on everything from Brando's accent to the film's divided reception and its brief, perhaps undercooked depiction of the occult. Transfer-wise the film has looked similar throughout the digital era with identical framing and color timing adhering to the original desaturated, earthy appearance. The HD iterations obviously improve in terms of clarity, especially when it comes to the many outdoor shots, with the original film grain left intact. The Kino Lorber looks a little click brighter, but otherwise the two Blu-rays offer virtually identical viewing experiences and retain the original English mono mix (with optional English subtitles). Bonus Brando-riffic trailers are also included for The Appaloosa, Candy, and The Missouri Breaks.


Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)

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Network (Blu-ray)

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Lionsgate (DVD)

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Reviewed on April 17, 2019.