Monday, October 22, 2007

Dr. K's Halloween Countdown Presents: The Nightcomers

(Note: this entry is a companion piece of sorts to yesterday's post about The Innocents.)

When I first heard of this movie’s existence, I couldn’t believe that such a film could be made, and after seeing it several times, I still can’t believe it exists. The Nightcomers (1972) is, ostensibly, a prequel to Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (or to the film version, The Innocents, covered in a previous post). I can't imagine any studio executive in his or her right mind even taking a pitch on such a concept. Everything that is subtle and imaginative about the novel or the earlier film is made explicit here in ways that run with the craziest possible interpretation of its source(s).(Director Michael Winner claims in the commentary track on The Nightcomers DVD that he never read the novella nor did he care for Jack Clayton's film, The Innocents. I believe he told the truth.)

To make things even crazier, Peter Quint is played by Marlon Brando, in that bleak period just before he would revive his career with The Godfather. During this period, Brando made some bad career choices, and his star was definitely on the decline. When left to his own devices, Brando could be a disaster, making idiosyncratic choices for no purpose than his own entertainment (like demanding to perform an entire role in whiteface while assisted by a dwarf sidekick, as he did in The Island of Dr. Moreau), and here he uses an Irish accent that causes viewers to expect him to ask for Lucky Charms at any moment (an accent he later uses, for no apparent reason, a few years later in The Missouri Breaks).

Stephanie Beacham plays Miss Jessel, who is just hired for the job of governess at the beginning, a move that parallels the beginning of “The Turn of the Screw” and The Innocents. (Vanessa Redgrave was originally supposed to play Jessel, but had to bow out because of last minute scheduling problems. In the realm of what could have been, I don’t know if Redgrave’s presence would have improved the film measurably. It would have made an interesting bit of trivia, however, because Vanessa's father, Michael, appears as the children's uncle in The Innocents.) On one of her first nights at the house, Jessel is alone in bed when Quint comes in and silently pulls down her nightgown and plays with her breast. I guess this is where we get the title from.

Quint teaches the children many useful things, like what happens when you give a frog a cigarette, which isn’t pretty. They go on to treat animals very badly throughout the film, proving what psychologists say about the early childhood of psychopaths. He also teaches them his own brand of metaphysics, especially his own unique notion of an afterlife, which mainly involves ghosts wandering around and meeting up with each other. The children ask him questions like, "The dead people meet each other, but do they love each other?" To which Quint responds, "If you love someone, you'll want to kill them." This will literally come back to haunt him in the end.

What’s worse, we are given no illusions about what exactly Miles has learned from Quint that gets him into trouble at his school in the James story. Quint and Jessel’s relationship ridiculously progresses into bondage and whipping. The sex scenes are pretty graphic in this movie, with Brando getting pretty sweaty and young Miles and Flora witness these scenes. Later, they begin their own roleplaying, with Miles viciously tying Flora up and torturing her.

The movie devolves even further as the children witness the degrading of this relationship and the developing depression of the two adults. In the film’s conclusion, the children take what they’ve learned from their elders and put it all to good use. Flora first drowns Miss Jessel in a sabotaged rowboat, while Flora watches from the shore chanting, "We want you to stay with us." Quint finds Miss Jessel's stiffened corpse after a few days (everyone believes she has left the estate for her home) and proceeds to get really drunk. As Quint stumbles back home from the pub, Miles shoots Quint multiple times with arrows, including one pretty square shot in the head. Miles then disposes of the body in a ditch (which served as the last time in recorded history that only one child could actually move Marlon Brando's body. Even just a few years later, it would take at least ten Tahitian youths to carry Brando around his island home.) The film ends with the new governess arriving at the estate, and the children immediately begin torturing her (This doesn't jibe with either "The Turn of the Screw" or The Innocents, as the new governess arrives before Miles has been kicked out of school.).

In graduate school, I loaned my third-generation videotape copy of this movie to an American Lit professor who specialized in Henry James. He’d never seen the movie before, and when he returned it, he gave a concise assessment: “If Henry James and D. H. Lawrence defied nature and had a baby, this is the horrible, misshapen beast they would have given birth to.” I think that summarizes the film quite well.

Despite being available on a Region 2 DVD for some years now, it was only this summer that the film was released on DVD in the US. Though this is a truly awful movie, it’s worth seeing just for the fact that it shouldn't exist at all, and the DVD has an amazing audio commentary by the director Michael Winner. I say “amazing” because Winner provides several entertaining anecdotes about working with Brando during this time in his career and their subsequent friendship. But I also mean “amazing” in other terms as well. Winner makes several jaw-droppingly inappropriate comments about the quality of Stephanie Beacham’s “bosoms” and young Verna Harvey’s (who plays 12-year old Flora, mind you) ass.

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