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Film Review: The Nightcomers (1972)

Updated: May 23, 2021

For many film buffs Marlon Brando will be forever synonymous with some of cinema's most memorable roles when the Hollywood legend was nothing short of a force of nature: Kurtz (Apocalypse Now) Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire) or Fletcher Christian (Mutiny on the Bounty) and Don Corleone (The Godfather) Paul (Last Tango in Paris).

Brando was Hollywood royalty and rightly so. Broody, beautiful and biceps-a-rippling he had it all, the ultimate leading man. Despite his abundance of gifts, Brando was no preening peacock. He liked a challenge. And what greater challenge than Michael Winner's obscure and frankly weird 1972 flick, The Nightcomers?

Co-starring Dame Thora Hird (Miss Gross) and a nubile Stephanie Beacham (Miss Jessel), Brando takes on the enigmatic role of Peter Quint, a pied piper on the wrong side of Hird's joyless housekeeper but very much on the right side of Beacham's seductive governess.

The action unrolls in a gothic stately home where, in the absence of their uncle, the young master and mistress of the house are taken care of by this trio of ill-suited and ever so slightly neurotic adults. While Beacham formally educates the children in the classroom, Quint educates the pair in the ways of the world transmitting the kind of knowledge that could never be learnt in books. At one with nature, Quint's way of life is intuitive.

Replete with soft-Dublin accent straight from Finnegan's Wake, Brando imbues this Rasputin-like figure with malicious vulnerability. As impromptu mentor to Flora and Miles, Quint is the man who is 'always right' about everything, a gentle tinker who delights in explaining the natural world. But there is a dark side to this genial tinker who wafts around the grounds of the magnificent home without purpose: is he a gamekeeper? A handyman? A gardener? Nobody seems to know, not even the master of the house.

Quint is also a sado-masochist who enjoys nothing more than tying the prim Miss Beacham up in knots - literally - whenever the house is asleep. This part of the children's unorthodox education inspires brother and sister to play out a similar scene bringing a frisson of incest into the proceedings of this bizarre, but always watchable film. 'We're doing sex' Miles informs a horrified Miss Gross.

The children, it would appear, have soon taken to emulating their rather eccentric role models. Inspired by Quint's treatment of Miss Beacham, brother even has a go at murdering sister in a half-hearted way. It just keeps getting weirder. Caught up in this disturbing psycho-sexual playground is poor, prim Miss Gross powerless to break the potent spell weaved by Quint, a prototype of the character played by Alan Bates in the The Shout (1978).

Given the tensions unleashed, death not only seems inevitable but welcome. At this point The Nightcomers takes an unexpected turn. Putting their lessons learnt thus far to macabre use, the transformation of master and mistress from angels to devils though shocking is perhaps not that mystifying. After all, children take their cues from the adults who surround them. And if those adults happen to be themselves damaged?

The arrival of a new governess (Anna Palk) heralds a new dawn. But little does the latest incumbent realise her youthful charges, sweet and innocent as they may look, now have a taste for blood . . .