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Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (1989)

Kl Studio Classics // PG // June 30, 2020
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted August 25, 2020 | E-mail the Author
Arriving at camp in an isolated part of the African countryside, ten strangers get to know one another. There is a judge, Lawrence Wargrave (Donald Pleasence); a doctor, Hans Werner (Yehuda Efroni); a general, Branko Romensky (Herbert Lom); an actress, Marion Marshall (Brenda Vaccaro); a private investigator, William Blore (Warren Berlinger); a would-be secretary, Vera Claythorne (Sarah Maur Thorpe); a playboy, Anthony Marston (Neil McCarthy); an American couple, Elmo and Ethel Mae Rogers (Paul L. Smith and Moira Lister); and their guide, Phillip Lombard (Frank Stallone). Mysteriously absent is their host, Mr. Owen, who invited them, hired them, or otherwise convinced them to appear through friends of friends and other means. On the first night, the entire group discovers Mr. Owen's secret plot, in the form of a vinyl record, which reveals that all of them are suspected of killing someone, and shortly thereafter, they begin dying, one by one.

Just a few days ago, the trailer for 20th Century Studios' new big-budget Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile appeared online, showcasing a cast full of buzzy and recognizable stars, each with a meaty and interesting part to chew into, wearing gorgeous costumes, in visually stunning locations. 1989's Ten Little Indians struggles to even check off one of these boxes, employing a mixed-bag ensemble cast in service of a weak and meandering script, with director Alan Birkinshaw listlessly starting and stopping scenes at his convenience until the movie shrugs its way to a conclusion.

Right off the bat, one wonders about the film's genesis, when the Cannon Films logo appears on screen. Most people will instantly associate Cannon with low-budget B-action movies, which makes it curious that they decided to try for what seems like more of a prestige picture. A cursory Google search didn't bring up any budgetary specifics, but the film has the look and feel of a TV movie, largely taking place in one camp set on a mountainside that could just as easily be some location here in the US as it could the African wilderness. The cheapness of the camp set and the functional simplicity of the cinematography also undermine the costumes, making the film feel less like a major motion picture and more like bad community theatre.

If there were anything that was going to elevate this version of Indians, it would have been the cast, but even the strongest members of the ensemble struggle to spin the script's straw into gold, and they are often let down by their less talented co-stars. Herbert Lom (who is in the film all-too-briefly), Paul L. Smith, Brenda Vaccaro, Yeruda Efroni, and Warren Berlinger make up the better half of the cast. Smith, in particular, actually creates a certain atmosphere around his moody character, while the rest just feel like they'd be better utilized in a smarter movie. The biggest disappointment among the recognizable names is Pleasence, who plays it pretty safe, and without much passion, as if he knew the energy would be wasted. Thorp and Stallone, whose importance increases as the film goes on, are not bad so much as they are vacuums of charisma, providing the thrills of a beige coat of paint.

Much like Pleasance, Birkenshaw seems to have realized the film was a lost cause at some point. At no point does he try to generate much atmosphere, executing moments and seqeunces like boxes on a checklist, many of which have no consequences whatsoever. An early scene with a basket half-heartedly gestures that the idea of tension, and then simply cuts to the end, where it retroactively serves just to set up a plot point. At one point, a character steps in a bear trap for no reason, which causes no residual damage and adds nothing to the story. What's especially incredible is that the film still manages to get lazier as it goes along, with the big reveal at the end and the ultimate resolution more or less stated aloud by the characters instead of shown, with Birkenshaw simply cutting to reveals.

The Blu-ray
It's rare that I would advocate for floating heads, but there's something about the colors and the faintly low-res quality of the original painted poster art for Ten Little Indians that I'm not a fan of. It feels very \"of-its-era\" with the bland yellow and orange, with no primary reds, greens, or blues to make the art look a little more vibrant (note: my complaint is with the original poster; I'm not advocating that Kino should've altered the colors of the painting). There was another poster, featuring cast photos in bullet holes punched through a map, and I think that art would've looked better. The back cover adheres to KLSC's standard template, with a couple of color photographs over a black-and-white text template. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
The packaging advertises Ten Little Indians' 1.85:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer as a new 2K master. To be quite honest, this is among the more underwhelming 2K or 4K remasters I've viewed. For the most part, the film (which largely takes place outdoors, lit by sunlight) has a hazy look that softens fine detail, colors (the sky and trees) can feel drab, the image is flat and lacks much in the way of depth, and there are some tiny print flecks from time to time. The best-looking material comes around the 50-minute mark, when the characters go on a brief hunt outside of camp. To be fair, KLSC is not necessarily at fault: the film appears to be a low-budget affair, some of the softness is either intentional or couldn't be helped, it's unclear what materials were used (it seems possible that the scan could be off of an interpositive rather than the original negative), and it's possible Kino didn't have the budget or ability to do much with the scan once it was handed over. It's also worth pointing out the PQ is mostly underwhelming in the context of being new -- all things considered, this might be the best the film is capable of looking, and it's adequate in the same way most MGM catalog titles tend to look fine on Blu-ray, it's just that those discs utilized older masters.

Sound is a pretty pedestrian DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track that presents dialogue crisply and doesn't have much else to do, with little going on other than that than an extremely underwhelming score by George S. Clinton. English subtitles are also provided.

The Extras
None, other than a original theatrical trailer for Ten Little Indians. Additional trailers for Witness For the Prosecution (1957), Endless Night, Ordeal By Innocence, Heart of Midnight, River of Death, The Black Windmill, and Murder By Decree are also included.

Conclusion
The 1989 version of Ten Little Indians doesn't even make time to include the entire nursery rhyme in question, which is a good indication of how invested the filmmakers were in the movie. Kino's new 2K master is an oddly middle-of-the-road effort, although perhaps that's just how the film is supposed to look -- it'd be in keeping with the rest of it. Skip it.


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