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Retro Review: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1989)

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TEN LITTLE INDIANS
(US - 1989)

Directed by Alan Birkinshaw. Written by Jackson Hunsicker and Gerry O'Hara. Cast: Donald Pleasence, Brenda Vaccaro, Frank Stallone, Herbert Lom, Paul L. Smith, Moira Lister, Sarah Maur Thorp, Warren Berlinger, Yehuda Efroni, Neil McCarthy. (PG, 100 mins)

Veteran producer Harry Alan Towers (1920-2009) already had two previous big-screen adaptations of Agatha Christie's 1939 novel And Then There Were None to his credit, with both 1965 and 1974 versions titled TEN LITTLE INDIANS, but only his 1989 version cites Christie's 1943 play Ten Little Indians as its basis. The difference is negligible, as the play had a more upbeat ending than the novel,  but none of Towers' three versions stuck with the novel's bleak ending anyway. The 1989 version was the last and by far the least of Towers' takes on the material, with 1965 (directed by longtime David Lean assistant George Pollock) generally considered the best, though the 1974 (directed by Peter Collinson) has aged very well, and with its unique setting in a luxury Iranian hotel, its Bruno Nicolai score, and some surprisingly stylish murder sequences, it almost plays in retrospect like an Agatha Christie giallo. Despite Towers' obvious affinity for the material (he also scripted the 1965 and 1974 versions under his pseudonym "Peter Welbeck"), Rene Clair's 1945 version AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is still considered the definitive adaptation of this Christie work.






But this TEN LITTLE INDIANS, released by Cannon in November 1989 as they were transitioning into their life support years, is mostly lethargic and uninspired, blandly directed with little style or suspense by Alan Birkinshaw. A career D-lister who was usually brought in to clean up other people's messes, Birkinshaw replaced two fired directors on the 1984 killer Santa outing DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, and he handled extensive uncredited reshoots on Cannon's 1985 Christie adaptation ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE when Desmond Davis (CLASH OF THE TITANS) was handed his walking papers after a disastrous Cannes screening. Birkinshaw's 1978 UK video nasty KILLER'S MOON has its admirers, but he never distinguished himself elsewhere. By 1989, he was finding steady employment with Towers, though TEN LITTLE INDIANS was the only one of their collaborations to make it into theaters: he also helmed two entries in the ill-advised Poesploitation craze of the era--THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH--both shot in 1989 but released straight-to-video in 1991.





Like a lot of Cannon productions from this period, TEN LITTLE INDIANS '89 (like Birkinshaw's two Poesploitation movies, which were handled by Menahem Golan's post-Cannon outfit 21st Century) was shot in Towers' then-stomping grounds of apartheid-era South Africa, where production costs were low, and even though it was frowned upon by Hollywood, many actors who needed the work had to go where the work was, regardless of the ethical dilemmas inherent in such journeyman assignments (Michael Dudikoff expressed regret after shooting three Cannon films in South Africa, opting to sit out AMERICAN NINJA 3 and only returning for AMERICAN NINJA 4 after they agreed to move the production to Lesotho). Shooting in South Africa also allowed TEN LITTLE INDIANS '89 to take advantage of its location for a safari setting, and the cast of mostly familiar faces corralled by Towers is a veritable Who's Who of "Apartheid? Never heard of it!" The set-up is the same: a group of strangers have been invited to a remote location--this time an African safari in the 1930s--by a mystery host named "U.N. Owen." They have no known ties to one another, aside from all of them having a secret known only by Owen: they're all directly or indirectly culpable for at least one death, and Owen is making them pay, exposing the skeletons in their closet and offing them one by one. In no particular order, there's rugged safari guide Capt. Lombard (Frank Stallone), Judge Wargrave (Donald Pleasence); dementia-addled General Romensky (Herbert Lom, also in the 1974 version, but in a different role); boozy actress Marion Marshall (Brenda Vaccaro), former governess Vera Claythorne (Sarah Maur Thorp), Dr. Werner (Yehuda Efroni), dashing Anthony Marston (Neil McCarthy), private eye Blore (Warren Berlinger), who's been hired sight unseen by Owen to keep an eye on everyone, Mr. and Mrs. Rodgers (Paul L. Smith, Moira Lister), who claim to have won a contest to be on the safari under the stipulation that they play a recording of Owen listing the crimes of those he's gathered.


TEN LITTLE INDIANS opening in Toledo, OH on 1/5/1990


Christie's novel is pretty much the gold standard in classic mysteries, one that's so good that it's difficult to screw it up, but TEN LITTLE INDIANS '89 is like lukewarm leftovers. The setting is unique in theory but doesn't make sense in execution, since they're at a small, cramped camp and it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the killer can move about undetected in such a limited space. And of course, the more people are bumped off, the more the remaining survivors continue to split up instead of stick together. No one here is at their career pinnacle (well, except for maybe Maur Thorp, whose entire film career consisted of three Towers productions--this, EDGE OF SANITY, and RIVER OF DEATH--all released in 1989), but most of them seem to be acting with a sense of apathy rather than urgency. They're all suspects at one time or another and of the ensemble, Lom has a couple of Commissioner Dreyfus-esque harumphs and seems like the only one who brought his almost-A-game, but he's taken out fairly early. Vaccaro looks like a past Oscar-nominee who knows this is junk. Berlinger does a lot of Charles Durning/Brian Dennehy blustering but little else. Pleasence can always be relied upon to ham it up but he seems uncharacteristically bored and half-asleep (though the goofy grin on his face during a croquet scene is amusing). Smith does the same stink-eye squint that he perfected in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, PIECES, and however many others, but it just seems stale here. And Stallone is just terrible. Just out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead), TEN LITTLE INDIANS '89 has some beautiful exteriors when you get to see them, but this third time out for Towers just drags along and is of little interest to anyone but the most die-hard Cannon completists or Frank Stallone stalkers. Birkinshaw also worked with Pleasence on THE HOUSE OF USHER, and with Stallone, Vaccaro, and Lom on THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and I'm surprised neither of those have surfaced on Blu-ray yet.


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