Brando Does British Horror
Jane Nightshade recounts the story of Marlon Brando's strange sojourn into British horror for Michael Winner's The Nightcomers...
At the dawn of the 1970s, Marlon Brando was forty-six, fat, balding, and greying. He was no longer the young superstar in the tight T-shirt who electrified audiences in 1950s classics such as On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Wild One. His personal life was a train wreck and he was sinking further into the eccentric boorishness that defined his later off-screen reputation.
The full collapse of the old Hollywood studio system in the 1960s gave screen actors more freedom to choose their own projects. Brando, for the most part, chose poorly. The 60s were a cruel decade for him, as he starred in bomb after bomb, such as the bizarre cult film Candy (1968), a production he later admitted was “the worst movie I ever made in my life.” He deeply resented the critical flayings he received for these disasters. He was, after all, still Marlon Brando, the man dubbed “Actor of the Century” by Time magazine.
What’s an ageing Hollywood supernova to do? Make a horror film, obviously. A well-worn path trod by numerous other stratospheric screen idols, including —relatively recently—Harrison Ford (What Lies Beneath, 2000) and Robert DeNiro (Hide and Seek, 2005).
The horror script Brando chose was The Nightcomers, from a 1971 British production helmed by British director Michael Winner (Death Wish, The Mechanic) and shot mostly on location in Cambridgeshire. On paper, The Nightcomers looked like a good idea. Conceived as a prequel to the oft-filmed classic ghost story by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, it tells the story of what went on at Bly House when the sinister ghostly couple, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, were still alive.
The Nightcomers is based on a novel of the same title by British playwright Michael Hastings, who co-wrote the script with Winner. The big revelation at the end — SPOILER ALERT — is that the children of Bly, Miles and Flora, brutally murder both Miss Jessel and Quint in the mistaken belief that they’re helping the couple stay together in the afterlife. It’s a decent explanation for the later hauntings at Bly, portrayed so magnificently in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961).
In the hands of a different director and possibly a different leading man, The Nightcomers could have been a classic of psychological horror. Instead, it’s an oddity — a film that’s technically too good to dismiss out of hand as trash, but which also fails on almost every level. There is probably a German portmanteau word somewhere that perfectly describes it.
Labouring under the misimpressIon that he was creating a masterpiece the equal of The Innocents, Winner let Brando run rampant all over The Nightcomers. Brando running rampant on a movie set — at least in this film — is not a pretty sight. He plays the sadistic Quint as a mischievous schoolboy with a terrible Irish brogue that belongs in a kid’s cartoon about leprechauns. (Winner claimed he took Brando to a pub frequented by Irishmen so he could study their accents. Brando pointed at one fellow and asked “Is that an Irishman?” to which Winner replied, “No, Marlon, that’s a Pakistani.”)
The centrepiece of the film is the sadomasochistic relationship between Brando as Quint and Stephanie Beacham as Miss Jessel. This is hinted at (in 1890s euphemisms) by the original novella, so it’s not something gratuitously added by Hastings/Winner. Nevertheless, the sex scenes between Brando and Beacham would most likely not have pleased Henry James. They are neither erotic nor titillating—they are just mean-spirited and nasty.
Poor Stephanie Beacham strips down and is subjected to all manner of indignities, while Brando keeps his naughty bits covered and benefits from preferential camera angles that hide his paunchy girth.
The children (Verna Hervey and Christopher Ellis) surreptitiously watch it all and then “innocently” act out what they’ve seen. This extends the nastiness into outright ickiness. Ellis was just thirteen when filming began—his age, combined with the nature of the material, would be a scandal today. (Flora was played by a young-looking adult, Verna Hervey, who was in her late teens.).
The children’s ages have been put forward from that of the book to accommodate the older actors, but this undercuts a basic premise of the story: Miles and Flora are now no longer the “innocents” of ten and eight. They are now supposed to be around twelve to fourteen — and look far too old to buy into Quint’s fairytale stories of the afterlife, upon which much of the plot hangs.
Aside from the children’s problematic ages and Brando’s scenery-devouring disaster of a performance, the other actors are very good. (Brando himself actually got a BAFTA nomination out of the role, incredibly enough). Beacham does a decent job of fleshing out the mysterious Miss Jessel, and Thora Hird is excellent as Mrs. Grose. The cinematography by Robert Paynter (who would work with Brando again a few years later on Richard Lester’s Superman II along with Geoffrey Unsworth) is slick and atmospheric. The score by Jerry Fielding is lovely, but it belongs in a different film; it’s often too light and airy for a brooding Gothic drama.
On top of the frequent other misfires, The Nightcomers isn’t even scary. It’s mostly a murder story with a few voodoo references thrown in to justify a genre label. It’s missable unless you’re a rabid Brando or Winner fan, or you’re curious about how the mysterious gaps in the original story have been filled in.
In summation, The Nightcomers is an interesting failure —nothing more, nothing less—although Brando insisted it was a cinematic masterpiece for years. While shooting the film, however, the ageing superstar would land the role of his lifetime—as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, a movie that actually is a cinematic masterpiece. He would go on to win his second Oscar and enjoy one of the greatest comebacks in Hollywood history.
As for Winner, he directed a true 70s horror classic a few years later, The Sentinel (1977). He also became fast friends with Brando, and at the star’s death (at age eighty in 2004), Brando reportedly still had a photo of Winner in his residence. The photo was of Winner selling condoms on the street in London, the result of losing a long-ago bet with the great star.
The Nightcomers is available in streaming, Blu-ray, and DVD formats. The discs include hilarious commentary by Winner on working with Brando.