Two Children. Two Adults. No Ghosts? The Nightcomers

Here's a premise I never would've thought the world needed to see realized: a prequel to Henry James' The Turn Of the Screw.  If you're familiar with the story, sure, it makes some sense.  The Turn Of the Screw is one of those stories where two children are haunted... whether by literal ghosts or just the lasting effects of their trauma is for both the protagonist and the readers to determine.  But it means we enter the story after a major piece of drama has occurred, which, if you think about it, is typical of ghost stories.  You know, like a young couple buys a house and someone tells them, hey, the previous owner killed his whole family, and some say they still walk the halls at night.  The plot follows the young couple, with the murderer and his family just serving as the back story.  So here, somebody said, let's make that backstory the story.  But that's actually kind of weird, since you're adding another chapter to a ghost story, but one with no ghosts in it, because these events predate all that.  Imagine screening a prequel to Friday the 13th and watching the audience as they slowly realize there's going to be no murderer because the story ends with Jason in the lake, so the whole movie is just about Mrs. Vorhees getting to know, and being perfectly friendly with, the camp counselors.  Tough sell, right?
Tougher still, you're not writing an add-on to an independent little horror film but a world-renowned classic English novel.  I know it's been done plenty of times before, since those characters are generally safely in the public domain.  So instead of trying to sell audiences on your own characters, you can try to hook existing fans of Jane Austen or whoever by writing Mansfield Park 2, where Mr. Darcy arrives to seduce Fanny away from Edward.  Actually, that's a great idea.  I'm claiming that copyright now if no one's done it already!  But seriously, I've seen stuff like that in bookstores before and it's usually a big red flag that the author is hack.  Nobody takes them seriously, and nowadays they're more properly relegated to online fanfic forums.  But 1971's Nightcomers shows you can make real, worthwhile artistic pieces in this manner as well.
Marlon Brando stars (which is either a promising hallmark or another big red flag; I'm not sure) as Quint, the infamous groundskeeper who had already passed at the start of Turn Of the Screw.  In Turn, a new governess is hired to take care of a wealthy businessman's two wards, who turn out to be deeply troubled by their former governess and Quint, who'd had some kind of dark, mysterious relationship.  So this film explores that relationship.  Yeah, nothing supernatural here.  It's dark, but I really don't think you could call this a horror story, except in the loosest possible definitions.  It's a drama, but a smart and honest one.  You could definitely watch this never having heard of Turn and get everything out of it, though of course you'll find more little nods and connections to appreciate if you are familiar.  This film does have a bit have a lurid reputation, which is not entirely undeserved.  But now that it's so old and plays downright quaint, with most of the racy notions left to subtext and discussed ideas rather than on-display exploitation, I think we can more easily take the content for what it is without being distracted by the adult elements.  The cast is uniformly excellent, including Thora Hird as Mrs. Grose and the two child actors, who can often be the weak link in films with minors in leading roles.
The Nightcomers is a British film, so it's not too surprising they got it on DVD first.  But when Lions Gate finally put it out here in 2007, it blew all the overseas editions out of the water by way of being a special edition.  Then the UK beat us to the punch again in 2015, with Network being the first to release this film on blu.  But they pulled a bit of a Christine, releasing it without the DVD extras, making us choose between an HD transfer or special features, or else buy multiple editions.  Of course, it's a bit of an unfair analogy, as Christine was a new film egregiously released on DVD-only by Sony, while here we're talking about a catalog title.  Totally different situation, but it's still a bummer for fans when it happens.  But thankfully this week Kino has stepped in to, like Lions Gate in the DVD age, bring The Nightcomers back to the US with a new special edition.  It's got all the original extras and more new stuff, plus of course the updated HD transfer.  ((Rocky theme))
2007 Lions Gate DVD top; 2019 Kino BD bottom.
So, okay, we're clearly looking at the same root master, with the exact same 1.85:1 framing and color timing.  But up close, it's a huge boost in clarity, with the DVD displaying an unfortunate amount of smudginess, even for SD compression.  That's thankfully completely cleared up on the blu.  Still, it's not exactly a cutting edge master on Kino's disc.  Grain is there but light and inconsistent.  If you look at the wall in the second set, for instance, the grain is there in patches, with other patches smoothing it away.  This is definitely not a 4k capture.  I guess they're using the same scan.  But still, getting this film in HD is a substantial step forward from the DVD, with no signs of DNR, edge enhancement or other unwelcome tinkering.

The audio is a clean DTS-HD presentation of the original mono soundtrack, and optional English subtitles are included.  The DVD only had Spanish subs.
So, like I said, all foreign editions were barebones, apart from a teaser and the trailer, until Lions Gate got their hands on it.  Now, Lions Gate didn't add a ton of stuff, but they added something pretty major: an audio commentary by director Michael Winner.  This is a delightful commentary; he's full of charming stories of working with Brando and the rest of the cast (fun fact: Vanessa Redgrave was originally hired to play the female lead), but Brando most of all.  Lions Gate also filmed a brief on-camera introduction by Winner.  Though if we want to wag our finger a little bit, it could be pointed out that they lost the trailer and teaser.  Well, Kino brought them back, and more importantly, carries over Winner's commentary and introduction.  That plus the HD was enough to sell me on this release already, but they've also produced a new audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.  Here, she's without her Daughters of Darkness partner Samm Deighan, which nixes the conversational quality of their Who Can Kill a Child commentary.  But she's more than capable on her own, thoroughly prepared, having listened to Winner's commentary not to use it as a source of anecdotes to repeat to us like some other commentaries I could name, but to note what not to say to avoid redundancy.  Refreshing, enthusiastic and highly informative!
Alright, so I said you don't need to be a Turn Of the Screw scholar to enjoy The Nightcomers, but still, it is a richer viewing when you know where it's all headed.  So I thought I'd share with you guys my favorite, fairly un-recognized adaptation from 1999, and I do include versions that don't share the title like The Innocents (which I'd rank a strong second place, but falls a little short due to an emphasis on style losing sight of the substance) in that.  I once made an effort to see every version of The Turn Of the Screw I could lay my eyes on, including the latest BBC version with all the Downton Abbey alumni, the Dan Curtis version with Lynn Redgrave, the Valerie Bertinelli version and of course that goofy 90s one with Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands as the master of a rather bizarrely art deco house.  And yet I've settled on this one as the ideal, definitive version to date.
This version is the Masterpiece Theater version, starring Jodhi May, who's never stopped working but seemed on the verge of taking a real star turn around this time.  And Colin Firth has the small but showy role of the master.  It expertly captures the period and the cast finds layers to their characters other versions miss.  Admittedly, this aims more towards the human drama than spooky ghost story atmosphere, so I can understand why a lot of fans might still prefer The Innocents.  If you're looking for something like The Haunting to make you cower under the covers on Halloween night, this ain't it.  But as that's also the tact that The Nightcomers takes, it makes 1999's Turn an all the more ideal companion piece.  The only thing I haven't been able to decide is if it's better to watch the original, and then go watch the backstory of Nightcomers and let it inform what you'd just watched as they were written, or to watch them in chronological order and watch the expanded story unfold.  I guess it's a pretty equally rewarding experience either way.
2004 WGBH DVD.
Unfortunately, this Turn Of the Screw's WGBH DVD is sorely lacking.  The back of the case describes this film as 4x3, but that's only because the opening Masterpiece Theater titles are fullscreen.  That leaves the film itself stuck in a non-anamorphic widescreen, floating in a sea of dead space.  And framed at the very unusual ratio of 1.59:1, I strongly suspect this is not the correct framing.  Being non-anamorphic means it's extra compressed into a smaller space as well, so the resolution is unattractively low even for a DVD.  Oh, and before I forget, it's heavily interlaced as well, adding up to a decidedly overall low quality video feel.  I would have loved, loved, loved for WGBH to go back and restore it for blu-ray like they did with Northanger Abbey, but now in 2019, I fear that ship has sailed and this, and a fairly identical import disc, is all we'll ever get.

For slight silver linings, this disc does include optional English subtitles.  And it features minor extras by virtue of including the TV spot and Alistair Cooke's Masterpiece introduction, which gives you a minimal briefing on James' novel for the uninitiated.  But boy, does this film need restorative rescuing.
So, as you've probably gathered by now, I'm pretty chuffed about this new Nightcomers.  Solid presentation and all the extras.  It helps that the price is always nice with these Kino discs; if we were being asked to pay limited edition Arrow prices, I'd say, come on, give us a fresh 4k scan.  But as it is, I'm quite pleased.  Except about The Turn Of the Screw.  That's such a bummer, it almost qualifies as an M.I.A.

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