Director: Michael Winner

Shot in 1971, THE NIGHTCOMERS offers an original story concerning characters and events leading up to Henry James' novel Turn of the Screw, therefore its sort of a prequel to Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS, released a decade earlier. For the star of this British-made film, the producer was able to employ Marlon Brando during the time that he made a long line of box office failures, and immediately before he would once again become a household name due to THE GODFATHER and LAST TANGO IN PARIS.

In Victorian England at the turn of the 20th Century, teenaged brother and sister Miles (Christopher Ellis) and Flora (Verna Harvey) have unknowingly lost their parents to a car accident in France, and now put in the hands of a wealthy legal guardian (Harry Andrews). Since the “master of the house” wants nothing to do with the children, he decides to take off, leaving the estate in the hands of the aged, proper housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Thora Hird), and in a lesser capacity, the attractive governess Ms. Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and the strange Irish gardener Peter Quint (Marlon Brando). The impressionable Miles and Flora become very taken with Quint, and despite his harmless jesting and the fact that he illustrates how to make a frog inhale a thin cigar, he’s not the best influence on them. Quint is Ms. Jessel’s lover, and behind closed doors they have a very stormy sexual relationship, complete with kinky bondage. Young Miles happens to catch a glimpse of this though the window, feeling a need to imitate these actions, as does his sister, and both of them continue a trail of pranks and inappropriate behavior that leads to disaster.

Often classified as a British horror film, THE NIGHTCOMERS has the balls to assume too much about the characters created by James and introduced to cinema-goers in THE INNOCENTS, and its ultimate mediocrity results from a rather bland screenplay, which dabbles in sensationalism and doesn’t really become tense until the final act. Some might blame the direction of Michael Winner, who, despite his critics and a number of admitted failures, has turned out a number of entertaining films. There’s also too much dependency on the zoom lens, even though the film does have some very impressive camera shots, lighting schemes and handsome period locations which makes it often resemble a Hammer or Amicus production from the same period.

Brando is always interesting to watch, and despite his method-acting tendencies to mumble his lines with the added Irish dialect, he gives a decent performance as a likable though somewhat misogynistic oaf. Beautiful, shapely Stephanie Beacham, who became a dependable figure in British horror with DRACULA A.D. 1972 and AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS, shows that she’s a talented actress, here sitting on a fence between prim and naughty, and her willingness to disrobe for several steamy scenes with Brando didn’t hurt much either. As the scheming children, Christopher Ellis and Verna Harvey (who was 19 at the time!) are not nearly as memorable as say, Mark Lester and Chloe Franks as the “Hansel and Gretel” of WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and their characters’ attempts to mimic the kink and aggression of their elders comes off as awkward and fails to makes any impact or convince an audience of their destructive path. Veteran actress Thora Bird is excellent, and plays well off the rest of the cast, and Harry Andrews is also good in his brief appearance. Anna Palk (familiar to horror fans from THE FROZEN DEAD and TOWER OF EVIL) has a small role as another governess.

Without any fanfare, LionsGate has released THE NIGHTCOMERS uncut on DVD in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. Obviously taken from the original U.S. negative (the film was originally released here by Joe Levine’s Avco Embassy) detail is well defined, with colors and fleshtones looking quite fresh and bold, and there are no blemishes to be found. No doubt, a gorgeous transfer of a 35-year-old film. The mono English audio plays very clearly and optional English and Spanish subtitles (as well as English captioning) are included.

Surprisingly, LionsGate was able to get producer/director Winner to participate on the disc. First off is a very brief video introduction, were Winner mentions his admiration for Brando. Next up is a full audio commentary with Winner, which doesn’t include a moderator. Winner uses most of the time to tell a number of stories about his friend Brando, who he describes as a great guy who liked to laugh. He talks about Brando (whom he'd remained in contact with until his death) as not being complicated, but throughout the commentary, he tells a number of amusing anecdotes that would make one believe otherwise. Winner also mentions how Vanessa Redgrave was originally to play Beacham’s part, but was still shooting a film in Italy, so she couldn’t do it. Winner is not afraid to be cheeky or un-politically correct, so the commentary makes for a good listen. (George R. Reis)