Countdown to Halloween: Matthew Banks on And Then There Were None (1945)
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Another colleague from the "We Belong Dead"/"Unsung Horrors" group and another great contribution to the countdown! Matthew Banks first said while he would like to participate, he wasn't sure he'd have time. Yet look what he sent! It's a fine example of his writing and I hope it whets your appetite for reading more of his work. Thank you, Matthew!
Many years ago, I sat in front of the television and was awestruck by a black and white adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famous novel "And Then There Were None" (Originally titled, "Ten Little Niggers," then "Ten Little Indians" before the current title.) As I watched, it dawned on me that the content of both the film (and the book) had had an influence on the horror genre and yet there was nothing in any of my film books. Why, I wondered, was Silence of the Lambs called a horror film, when it is in fact a tense psychological thriller, then I realised that the same could be said of Psycho and many others. Yet this film, with its isolated setting, criminally stained characters, a serial killer and a poem foreshadowing their demise, not counted. What makes a crime/thriller a horror film or not? That question, I’m still not sure of, but Christie’s work influence on the horror genre in undoubted.
Based on the Agatha Christie novel and released in 1945, And Then There Were None is probably one of the most influential Crime/Horror films of all time, that has been neglected by the horror genre and over-shadowed by those films that it has directly or in-directly influenced. In fact, almost every genre has crossed over one way or another with the horror genre, but none more so than the crime genre. For instance, M (1931), Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are all crime films but have been absorbed into the horror genre. Even films like The Crimes of Dr Crespi (1935) and any of the adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles have fallen into the horror category, yet And Then There Was None, for whatever reason, has not.
The story centres on a group of people being invited to a remote island and once there, via a gramophone record, they are accused of various crimes. And one by one they are murdered in accordance to a nursery rhyme that hangs in each of their bedrooms, and after each death a porcelain Indian (one for each guest) is found broken. After a search of the island of any other people, it dawns on those there that there is no one else and that one of them must be the killer. The isolation builds up the tension and fear until the end. BARNES, N.Y Herald Tribune said of the film in a review:
“… Superbly matched cast and consummate direction distinguish a contrived melodrama … Rene Clair has staged it with an artful blend of humour and terror …Acting such as you will see only very rarely in a picture… The crescendo of suspicion, fear and violence that builds steadily to an arresting climax … An excellent melodrama.”
The film was produced and directed by Rene Clair, with a cast including Roland Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Judith Anderson. Mischa Auer, Richard Haydn, Queenie Leonard with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on both Christie’s novel and the Broadway play "Ten Little Indians." There is a slight (and to some, annoying) change to the end of the film, in that the love interest survives (Played by Louis Haywood and June Duprez), thus detracting from Christie’s original ending, where everyone dies. In fact, had she not included an epilogue in her book, the reader would have been left with a major mystery – who was the killer! Clair was not going to let that happen in his film, and through a clever ruse, Hayward and Duprez clear up the mystery.
The novel has been filmed many times – as Ten Little Indians in 1965, 1974 and 1989. 1965 saw Bollywood’s take with Gumnaam, Russia’s interpretation came in 1987 with Desyat Negrityat and a good variation on Christie’s story came in 2003’s Identity. The most recent film version came in 2017, starring James Balsamo, Mark Valeriano, Marilyn Sheriff and was written and directed by Jantonio Turner. There have been several television and radio adaptations over the years too, the most recent being BBCs 2015 adaptation starring Aidan Turner and Charles Dance.
Though neglected by the horror genre, it has been quick to accept its influence upon it. Most notable is The Abominable Dr Phibes (AIP, GB, 1971) starring Vincent Price as the title character, who disfigured in a car accident, seeks vengeance on the doctors who failed to save his wife’s life on the operating table. His choice of punishment is to murder those he holds responsible by taking the ten plagues on Egypt as his source of punishment. This was followed by a sequel in 1972 with Dr Phibes Rises Again (AIP, GB, 1972), with Price again reprising his title role. This time he kills those trying to stop him taking his wife to the River of Life by using Ancient Egypt mythology.
Theatre of Blood (Cineman, GB, 1973) sees Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearian actor, who has had every play critically panned by The Critics Circle, with the biggest snub coming at an awards ceremony, where he expected to win an award, which went to another actor. Seeming to have committed suicide, he returns a few years later to exact his vengeance on those who panned his performances, by killing them, one by one from various Shakespeare plays – the first critic being killed Julius Caesar style … The common thread here in these films is that there is a source to the killings whether it be the ten plagues, Egypt Mythology, Shakespeare plays – they are all indebted to Christie and her brilliant idea to use a poem with which to set up the victims – and also that people should pay for their crimes – rightly or wrongly so.
The Horror franchise Saw brought Christie’s concept screaming into the new Millenia, with more gore and blood than ever before. Though the idea of using a poem, historical or mythological thread was gone, Saw had people having to acknowledge their crimes and try to escape from the ingenious torture devices that they had been placed. Of course, this may seem more like an Edgar Allen Poe story device than Agatha Christie, but that does not mean that the two authors did not have an underlying influence.
Since it was first published in 1939, the book has become one of the top six best-sellers of all time, has spawned a play (adapted by Christie herself), numerous film, radio and television adaptations, influenced other film-makers and their films, yet Rene Clair’s near faithful adaptation remains the best known and in my opinion one of the best psychological horror films ever made.
ABOUT THE COUNTDOWN
We all have them... stacks of movies we've purchased, but never watched; or, movies on the DVR, filling them to capacity. This year for the annual Countdown to Halloween, I'm going to make a dent in my "stack," watching one movie a day for the month of October that I've never seen, then writing about it.
Well, I'm going to cheat a little. Assisting me this year are a number of "guest bloggers" that I've invited to participate by commandeering classichorrors.club for a day. These are all people whose blogs I read, whose podcasts I enjoy, and/or whose existence I simply appreciate. It's an experiment, but I hope you'll enjoy reading some new perspectives.