Tuesday, October 25, 2016


George Pollock, 1965
Starring: Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Daliah Lavi, Fabian, Leo Genn, Mario Adorf

Eight strangers plus two caretakers are invited to a weekend party in a remote house in the mountains by a mysterious host, Mr. Owen, but they soon realize that they’re stranded there for the entire weekend and their host has accused them all of murder. Though he has promised to show up for their first dinner together, there is only a record with his voice charging each of them with a specific crime, which they all deny. But the first guest to admit that he is at least partially guilty is found dead soon after and the surviving members of the party realize that their host’s obsession with the “Ten Little Indians” poem could spell doom for them all...

Now generally known as And Then There Were None to avoid any of the racist connotations of the original title, Agatha Christie’s book is a must-read for anyone who likes murder mysteries and this film is the second adaptation of her much loved work. It contains some of my favorite of the genre’s themes: strangers trapped together in a confined space with no feasible way to escape, they are all murder suspects, and a murderer among them insures that they begin dropping like flies in some imaginative ways. Ten Little Indians diverges from Christie’s plot in several key ways, sadly, and the misanthropy of her book — where everyone actually is a terrible human being at best and some are actually murderers — is mostly absent, but I still have a real weakness for these sorts of plots.

Admittedly, Ten Little Indians also pales in comparison to the first adaptation of the film, RenĂ© Clair’s 1945 film And Then There Were None. One of my favorite mystery films and one that is much closer to Christie’s novel, it relies more heavily on tropes found in the old dark house subgenre. The characters in that film are wildly unlikable, though Clair expertly builds tension and keeps the group as a whole sympathetic because of their understandable desire to stay alive. Any changes made to the script were largely because the Hays Code prevented Clair from depicted some of the novel’s bleaker themes, like teen pregnancy, something that Ten Little Indians did not have to grapple with in quite the same way.

For whatever reason, cult producer Harry Alan Towers and director George Pollock — hired because he made a number of successful films in the ‘60s based on one of Christie’s most popular recurring detectives, Miss Marple — decided to abandon the racier themes of Christie’s novel and go for more of a swinging ‘60s vibe. I can’t really say why I decided to include it in my British horror series, as it isn’t a horror film and abandons many of the spookier elements of Clair’s film in favorite of some hilarious death scenes (including two involving a tumbling from the mountain), but there is still something compelling about it and addicted to these types of mysteries. I love the snowy setting; though it doesn’t necessarily improve on the coastal English vibe from the first film, it adds a pleasantly continental feel, which is enhanced by a cast that is both English and European.

And that’s the real reason I think horror/cult fans will want to seek this out: the cast. Though there aren’t any major starring names, Christopher Lee has a cameo as the voice of Mr. Owen, lending his distinctive baritone to the memorable recording that accuses all ten of the guests of murder. Italian horror regular Daliah Lavi makes an appearance as a demanding, self-important actress, though my favorite appearance is from prolific actor Leo Genn (Green for Danger) as the amazingly named General Mandrake, what I would loosely call the protagonist for the first half of the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Third Man), as the judge, is excellent and is especially allowed to shine during the second half of the film. And let us not forget Mario Adorf (!!!) who makes an appearance as a German caretaker, seeming far older than he was and more ridiculous than he would go on to appear to be in his numerous appearances in New German Cinema or giallo films.

Weirdly, overall, Ten Little Indians belongs to Goldfinger’s Shirley Eaton. Her performance here it made me wish she’d been in more mystery and horror films (rather than sex comedies) and now I have to revisit Jess Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu, in which she has a small role. The relationship between a secretary, Ann (Eaton), and an actor, Lombard (western star Hugh O’Brian) — which includes a sex scene — is a bit ridiculous and certainly there are a number of annoying characters, for example, I could really do without ‘60s pop singer Fabian, though his character is, blessedly, the first to die.

I don’t know if I can actually recommend Ten Little Indians. If you like murder mysteries, it’s an entertaining way to pass the time and anyone who loves Clue (1985) would probably be interested to see at least one or two versions of what is basically that film’s source material. There are a number of other versions of And Then There Were None to come after this film, and I’m also going to cover the 1974 version, which was directed by Straight on Till Morning’s Peter Collinson and stars both Richard Attenborough and Oliver Reed. It avoids some of the more absurd elements of Ten Little Indians — such as the lounge-appropriate, ridiculous, and very ‘60s score from Malcolm Lockyer, as well as the “Whodunit Break,” where you’re supposed to guess the identity of the murderer before he or she is revealed. And that goddamn cat. If you’re curious, pick it up on DVD.

Monday, October 17, 2016


James Hill, 1965
Starring: John Neville, Donald Houston, John Fraser My knife's so nice and sharp, I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” In late nineteenth century London, prostitutes are being murdered in the seedy district of Whitechapel. The city’s most renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes, is soon on the case along with his associate Dr. Watson and the scant clues — including a case of personalized surgical instruments left at a pawn shop —  lead them towards the missing son of the illustrious Duke of Shires. Holmes’ own brother Mycroft encourages him to find the killer, dubbed Jack the Ripper by the press, before the madman strikes again, sending Holmes into an increasingly complex web of lies, family secrets, and past violence, all revolving around a local asylum. It might seem a little off track for me to cover a Sherlock Holmes film for my British horror series, but — as with Hammer’s earlier The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee — this film does have some connection to the horror genre. I’m a massive Sherlock Holmes fan and it’s really a shame that this film and Hammer’s effort didn’t kick of a string of horror-tinged Conan Doyle thrillers. That bit of wishful thinking aside, A Study in Terror did have an interesting impact, both in terms of cinema and fiction; even though it’s relatively ignored and received mixed critical attention, it’s worth remembering because it was influential in two ways. First, it pitted the world’s most famous fictional detective against a historical, unsolved case; secondly, it was (as far as I can tell) the first work of fiction to pin the Ripper murders on a member of the British aristocracy, implying that a government-wide conspiracy is at foot. This theme began to reappear somewhat regularly, including in Murder by Decree (1978), which I’ll discuss more later, and Alan Moore’s masterpiece, the comic From Hell (1989-1996). The film’s connection to the horror genre is further highlighted in the fact that it was penned by Donald and Derek Ford of The Black Torment, and implied more sex and violence than the censors were apparently comfortable with; really it has nothing on, say, a Pete Walker film, but there are some brutal death sequences and a few implied seductions. And in his own way, Saucy Jack has become as much of a classic horror genre figure as Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. It’s always felt a bit weird to me to cut Ripper-themed films out of horror genre discussions and include them with thrillers instead; after all, this is about a series of crimes where an unidentified person literally guts prostitutes and spills their entrails all over the street. The film’s twist — which I am going to reveal here, so look out, spoilers ahead — focuses on the same core plot element as Murder by Decree and From Hell: a rebellious aristocrat had a relationship with a woman of questionable morals and his family attempted to cover it up, leading, in a roundabout way, to the murders. In this case, Lord Carfax (John Fraser), Michael’s brother, became obsessed with covering up a scandal. The murder of several prostitutes was just a ruse, a diversion, in order to distract from his real plan, to locate and then murder Angela (Adrienne Corri). The plot is sort of hard to follow and improbable: While Michael (John Cairney) was studying to be a doctor, he met and married a beautiful prostitute, Angela. He learned that she was unfaithful to him — with Max Steiner (Peter Carsten), the owner of the inn — and in an ensuing fight, she tried to throw acid in his face, but only wound up hideously scarring herself. Steiner keeps her hidden away in a room above the inn, while Michael went mad from the incident and is similarly hidden away in the asylum by his former mentor, Dr. Murray (Anthony Quayle), who has let everyone believe that he’s dead. Sherlock’s deductions are a bit groan-worthy at times and his logical leaps make the head spin, but some of this is expected and the rest is made up for by a number of wonderful performances. Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen himself, John Neville, is absolutely divine as Holmes and I really wish he had been given his own run as the sleuth, like Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett (though admittedly no one can compare with the latter). Donald Houston’s blustering Watson provides a nice counterpoint, as he is generally always affronted about something, adding a subtly comic twist to the grim proceedings. I know this use of Watson as comic relief annoys a lot of Conan Doyle purists, but when it’s done well, I’m afraid I can’t agree. It actually spares the film from being obsessed with its own cleverness, a fate that Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree suffers from. And while I think the latter is a better film, overall, it stands firmly on the shoulders of A Study in Terror and isn’t quite as entertaining in a diverting way. Also look out for Robert Morley (Theatre of Blood) as a wonderful Mycroft Holmes. The prolific Frank Finlay is probably my favorite Lestrade, a role he happily returned to for Murder by Decree (A Study in Terror’s Anthony Quayle also returned for that film, though not as a recurring character). And in an interesting sidenote, a young Judi Dench plays Murray’s niece and confidante. Her brief turn here reminds me a little of Angela Lansbury’s role in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); both actresses are now so well known that to see them so young and relegated to supporting roles is a bit distracting. Overall, I have to recommend A Study in Terror, if only because of my Sherlock Holmes love. If you don’t feel the same way about fictional consulting detectives, or have a fascination with Jack the Ripper films, this might be something to pass over. The concluding exposition is pretty teeth-grinding, but the film’s presentation of issues like classism and misogyny blended with some good old fashioned inherited insanity and religiously-inspired paranoia make for a deadly cocktail, though one that A Study in Terror serves up with mixed results. The loose implication that Carfax could murder Angela by murdering every prostitute in Whitechapel is something I wish had been brought to the screen a bit more exuberantly, but I will be forever spoiled by Moore’s From Hell (though I refuse to acknowledge that the horrific film adaptation even exists). Though it’s available on DVD, a cleaned up Blu-ray release would be nice, preferably in some sort of Holmes-themed box set, or, even more amazingly, a Ripper set.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


David Greene, 1970
Starring: Jenny Agutter, Bryan Marshall, Simon Ward

The 14 year old Wynne (Jenny Agutter) realizes she is in love with her stepbrother, George (Bryan Marshall), who is in his early thirties, and her sexual awakening just happens to coincide with the emergence of a serial killer who is murdering young women in the area. Wynne comes to suspect that George might actually be the killer, thanks to his suddenly mysterious behavior, which includes lying about his whereabouts, scratches on his back, and a bloody sweater that he attempts to hide in the garbage. He also disapproves of Wynne spending a lot of time at their partially burnt-out old house, which Wynne and her friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) pretend is haunted, because George’s fiancee died there in an accident years ago. But the more investigating Wynne does, she finds herself closer and closer to the killer...

Based on a novel by Audrey Erskine Lindop, I Start Counting is really more of a psychological thriller than a proper horror film, though it’s something of a spiritual successor to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) — about a young woman with latent amorous feelings for her uncle, who she suspects is a serial killer — with shades of eerie Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), though of course the latter wouldn’t come out until a few years later. But speaking of Australian films, this was an early starring role for the mesmerizing Jenny Agutter prior to her career-making performance in Walkabout (1971), which is also something of a coming-of-age film set in the Australian outback.

Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Shadow of a Doubt, and I Start Counting are all concerned with depictions of teenage sexuality — specifically emerging female sexuality and the potentially violent effects of its repression. Like some of the other British psychopath films of the time, I Start Counting intertwines fantasy and reality, but with an interesting twist: from the perspective of a potential victim rather than the killer. It was apparently somewhat shocking for the time, but there is nothing graphic about the sexuality on display here and (outside of a sex scene that Wynne stumbles into, to her horror), there is not even much implied. That’s not to say that director David Greene’s (The Shuttered Room, among many other more mainstream titles) use of this theme isn’t impactful and, in a sense, the film also reminded me of Romero’s Season of the Witch (1973), where the film’s horror genre themes emerge from an unhappy character’s boredom with their dull homelife. For Wynne, this is compounded by puberty and I Start Counting is a compelling portrait of the jarring, notably melancholic shift from childhood into adolescence.

And this is actually the primary focus of the film: the undertones of sex and morbidity just happen to coincide with the off-camera actions of a serial killer. This figure serves less as a major plot point (or side plot) and more as a symbol for the confrontation of past trauma with repressed desire. There is a brief glimpse of a girl’s body under the water — perhaps a reference to Night Must Fall (1964), which also opens with the murder of a girl near a riverside — but, as with Shadow of a Doubt, the central characters are made up of a female “detective” and her family: a nagging, clueless mother and a male relative obsessed with the crimes. Wynne’s slightly older, teenage step-brother has a folder where he collects all the press on the murders. He utterly some (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious lines like “If he’s going to kill all these people, he could at least rape them, it seems like such a waste.”

It’s perhaps unusual to have what is essentially a film about a young psychopath — like the countless titles made in the wake of Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) — told from the perspective of an even younger female protagonist. Though the basic script from Richard Harris — no, not that Richard Harris — is the only real flaw and it could have stood a bit more development, it makes great use of the fact that Wynne is still finding her way in the world and the agony she feels over her love for George is tangible. There are a few comical scenes, most of which involve her absolutely horrible friend Corinne, including one where she and Corinne discuss sex during mass and another where Corinne insistently shouts that she has had sex seven times. Seven times! If you’ve ever had a friend who was actually quite nasty to you (as teenage girls can often be) and was aggressively jealous, this captures that perfect. Corinne even tries to seduce George, which sets in motion the concluding tragic events, though I will restrain myself where spoilers are concerned.

I Start Counting has been almost totally ignored — particularly compared to other British psychopath films — and, as far as I can tell, it’s not yet available on a proper home video release, something that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. It deserves a restoration and a Blu-ray release with plenty of special features. If you’re a fan of Shadow of a Doubt, this would make an interesting double feature with either that or Picnic at Hanging Rock, and anyone who loves Agutter — and particularly in her early years, you’d have to be a monster not to — should seek this out immediately. Though I shouldn't give it all to Agutter, though she is phenomenal. Bryan Marshall (The Long Good Friday) has great chemistry with her and is perfectly used. Between the two characters, and especially in their interplay together, the film's stretches its legs and explores a profound sense of fantasy, longing, and emotional restraint that means that a lot of non-horror fans will also find a lot to love here.