The Master of the House (Harry Andrews), guardian to two children since their parents died in a tragic accident, is growing tired of living with them so far out of the capital in the English countryside, so has made arrangements to leave and go about his business affairs. This means Miles (Christopher Ellis) and Flora (Verna Harvey) are to be left in the care of their teacher, Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Thora Hird), yet the one individual who has most influence over them turns out to be Mr Quint (Marlon Brando), the groundskeeper. He is an uncouth Irishman, though the children love him and his stories - but could he be a bad influence?
Henry James' classic short novel The Turn of the Screw has set its readers wondering for over a century: was the new mistress insane, or was she really witnessing ghosts? However, few have been so intrigued as to what was really happening as to invent a whole background to what that phantom couple she thought she was seeing had really gotten up to before she arrived to take care of her charges, yet that is what screenwriter Michael Hastings and director Michael Winner, here apparently going for some literary respect, did. It's still recognisably a Winner film, for all its classic adaptation trappings, as James patently forgot to leave in the scenes of sexual bondage.
It's stuff like that which reminds you the seventies was the decade of films like The Night Porter and books like Let's Go Play at the Adams', but Winner was not really the man to bring that kind of transgressive material to the screen, and as soon as it is introduced, he quickly grows reluctant to pursue it much further. What he does do, in having Quint and Jessel's sex games influence the children's play, is create an air of perversity missing in its inspiration, and the sense of a group of people stuck out on the middle of nowhere as winter draws on (this is a very chilly-looking film, even without a flake of snow) sending each other mad by their very presence is a potent one.
At the heart of this is Quint, essayed by Brando with a leery charm and an unfortunate, sing-song "Oirish" accent that he must have been very proud of, but does his credibility no favours. This was released the year before The Godfather made him a force to be reckoned with all over again - if it had been made after it's doubtful Winner would have been able to afford him, but it does feature a Last Tango in Paris quality to its damaging love affair, so could have been part of the reason the star decided to take his performance even further in that than he does here. It's certainly curious to see him playing scenes with British national treasure Thora Hird: in his autobiography Brando recollects that he could not understand a word she was saying when they took lunch together, which is pretty rich coming from Marlon Brando.
In spite of reservations others have had, The Nightcomers is well cast, with Beacham's prim schoolmistress convincingly corrupted, and the two children, actually two actors in their late teens playing younger than their years, are appropriately squirm-inducing when they fall too far under Quint's spell. The isolation of these characters makes this an odd kind of horror movie, with much of the shock value gauged by what is going on in their minds rather than their actions, but if it all seems a bit unecessary in the first place - the strength of James' original is in its ambiguity - the film is better than its reputation. All right, there are times when Winner indulges Brando - who would argue with him? - as we didn't need part of the running time taken up with a rambling shaggy dog story about a horse, and it's not exactly sparkling entertainment, but it does have a queasiness you don't often get with old dark house mysteries that works in its favour. Music by Jerry Fielding.