SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

'TEN LITTLE MAIDENS' (1985) // And Then, Our Clothing, There Was None! ~ A 'Golden Age' production of Agatha Christie's classic murder mystery has the blood turn a distinct shade of blue!

The annual Agatha Christie festival in Torquay this September promised a host of delights, murder mystery trails, guest speakers, historians and even a mystery screening of a rare movie (promised to be currently unavailable on DVD and never before shown on TV). Sadly, and I write this one week after the festival, I'm still in mourning for what I may have missed - I was unable to go.

As compensation, I decided to hunt down the rarest Agatha Christie adaptation that I could find and it's a safe bet that 1985's 'Ten Little Maidens' wasn't the mystery screening at this year's Agatha Christie celebrations in Torquay.
The plot of this adult movie from the so-named 'Golden Age' of XXX epics (a time, in the 70s and 80s of proper storylines - and real acting to boot, as well as lots of 'the other' to draw in the crowds) follows the Agatha Christie novel 'And Then There Were None' (despite there being no credit to the source on screen) about as faithfully in execution as you are going to find in many a mainstream adaptation, of which there have been many - including a nicely isolated and claustrophobically kooky version from 1989 starring Donald Pleasence and Frank Stallone (also reviewed at Seat at the Back) called 'Ten Little Indians'.

Ten Little Maidens remains faithful only to the ideas of Christie's novel and especially to the climatic countdown of death to the last 'man' standing, without taking itself too seriously. The film's title is a play on the name of the original Agatha Christie novel, now known as 'And Then There Were None'. The book has been released under many titles, including 'Ten Little Indians' but it's the original, of 'Ten Little Niggers' that is - today - clearly offensive and no longer used.

The original children's rhyme of 'Ten Little Indians', that Christie is referencing throughout her novel, was adapted in 1868 for a minstrel show (of the kind that played strongly on racial stereotypes) with 'Ten Little Niggers' replacing the 'Ten Little Indians' of the original rhyme (though it seems there is some uncertainty as to which word came first, or even debate as to which is the most offensive). Christie chose the minstrel version for her book title, as it would have been more well known at the time (and a very different time it was) and also reflected her interest in using nursery rhymes for book titles and plots.
Other critics have been of the opinion that the title was chosen to comment on inherent racism (or fears and prejudice generally) in society, especially middle-class white British society and installed at childhood subliminally through nursery rhymes and books. Some critics provide evidence detailed throughout Christie's novel of ways in which racism is ridiculed (such as the island where death strikes the ten being called (and not surprisingly later changed - to 'Soldier Island') - 'Nigger Island'.

Academic Dr. Kim Edwards, came up with this, perhaps against-the-grain, defence of racist language in the original novel:
"Agatha Christie was a writer of her times, and the racism evident in some of her early books reflects this, but the problematic history of one of her most famous and favourite novels reveals a more complex and self-critical examination of racial constructions. Before its name change, And Then There Was None actually turned the critique in towards the deficiencies of her own culture, society and race and therefore exposed the hypocrisy and offensive nature of racial slurs in poems such as this."

Such academic concerns matter little to the director of 'Ten Little Maidens' - John Seeman, adult film actor and director of just four movies (the other three being 'Blonds Have More Fun', 'Young Passions' and 'Missing Pieces') between 1979-1985. The screenplay is from Arthur King, who has a habit of lampooning classic books or films and turning them dirty: 1988's 'Maxine' stole from cult British sci-fi Max Headroom (M..M..M..Maaaax Headroooom! - and if you remember that, you are too old to worry about dignity when saying this catchphrase old loud) and even ripped-off Star Wars (but, well - who didn't?) for 1985's 'Sex Wars' that featured such characters as Princess Orgasma and Mark Starkiller.

For Ten Little Maidens, we follow the action as a group of visitors to a mysterious tropical island for an invite-only holiday end up finding their host is absent (but still plays them frequent messages on tape regarding their imminent deaths).

China statues (more erotically shaped than in any previous adaptation of this story) start toppling off the cabinet they are placed upon, every time one of the guests meets an unfortunate end. The renamed title of Christie's novel - 'And Then There Were None' while being far more palatable, also pretty much gives the game away of how many guests get bumped off by the end.

We start the movie back in suburban America with a young couple - John (Harry Reems of 'Deep Throat' fame from 1972, who could act comedy as well as he could horror or thriller - notably in 1980's demented psycho sex-thriller appropriately called 'Demented') and his partner Carol (a delightfully frothy Ginger Lynn) making out on the sofa while being pelted with letters and newspapers through the letterbox from a peeping postgirl. The tone of the movie thereby identified from the outset.

Familiar faces from classic adult movies from the 70s and 80s also appear as guests on the island, from handsome Joe Sarno favourite Eric Edwards (another adult movie star who could act without shame in more mainstream erotic movies such as Sarno's cult epic 'Confessions of a Young American Housewife' from 1974) as the rugged, all-action Larry and the effortlessly sinister Jamie Gillis as butler Renfro.


Gillis was a former New York taxi driver (and taxis had a way of appearing in a number of his movies) and a trained actor, appearing in off-Broadway roles before being offered opportunities in adult movie-making. Known for bursting into random outpourings of Shakespeare's finest works to legitimise his adult shows, this intellectual and charismatic man who - it seems - never succumbed to drink and drugs like many of his contemporaries, was also prone to 'doing just about anything' in his movies, with no shame.
A truly self-styled depraved soul at heart, Gillis was also described as generous to friends and charismatic in real life - thoroughly likeable, despite the often unlikeable roles he would play on screen. One of his most famous roles - in 'Water Power' channelled Travis Bickle from the classic Martin Scorsese movie 'Taxi Driver' (starring Robert De Niro) and that followed the familiar theme of moral brain overload leading to riding the streets of 'filth', usually to cover up for own moral failings.

It's a similar theme, to Taxi Driver or Demented, in Ten Little Maidens - the idea of a morally corrupt group being punished for their sins and loose behaviour. One of the ten is a killer and punishing those responsible not, as in the Christie novel, for undiscovered crimes, but for a lack of morals and a sinful wallowing in lust and depravity (a satire on the stance of some of the more morally righteous members of society to movies such as these - perhaps).

That the cast is made up of a rogue's gallery of ageing adult movie stars (if of the premier league and fully able to act kind) and especially the reprehensible Jamie Gillis (who slurs and broods brilliantly as butler Renfo with a passion - a disturbing fetishtic passion that we could probably have done without - for food in the pantry prepared for the guests) lends the movie a postmodern take and last gasp farewell of sorts to the classic adult film-making era that relied on plot and (at least some loose) character development. By the mid-80s, this so called golden age was reaching a natural climax as shot on video trash moved increasingly into the frame. The old guard increasingly stabbed in the back by a camcorder lens and a less artistic approach from rookie adult film-makers often making a profit first and a movie second (with notable exceptions, like Michael Ninn and Marc Dorcel), in a genre already pretty much despised by the mainstream.

Agatha Christie may shudder at the quite dramatic (if pretty silly) deaths on screen In Ten Little Maidens, but they are reasonably respectful of the Queen of Crime's macabre mind: from the standard arsenic at the dinner table to one member of the cast's deadly private parts (the area in question glowing red, like a pulsating traffic light of doom, just below the surface of the skin).
With poisonous privates ready to seep arsenic into a stray visiting male tongue, this may be Christie territory - but it's sure taken to a whole new level, especially when one cast member gets his genitals garrotted by a rubber duck. Even then, it's still not as crazy as Christie's own 'Dumb Witness' in which for a time, it looks like the dog did it!

It's Gillis who meets that nasty end of being strangled by a rubber duck on the end of his, err - d*ck (sic) and you can't help feeling it serves him right for being such a thoroughly reprehensible character (in the nicest way possible). But you ain't seen nothing yet - a double-ended vibrating device also hides a nasty secret when it electrifies both partners in the film's long and really quite exciting set-piece watched, menacingly, through a gap in the wall by a shadowy figure. The killer prowls the mansion like in the old dark house thrillers of old.

Of course, the Christie mystery stuff takes a while to come into play, and some of the film becomes tiresome when it loses the mystery - it also probably could have made more of both setting and the whodunit heritage. But there's a lot of fun to be had in the mimicry of country house mores and manners and four-poster beds where a naughtily accessorised buckaroo doesn't look remotely out of place.

There's a message to this movie - the old guard of the adult film industry that still holds huge retro appeal and a certain fondness to fans of all kinds of cinema today, are wiped out, one by one, by an unknown assailant perhaps tired of their fun and games (or jealous of their acting ability). That the movie takes on the happier ending of the Agatha Christie stage play version, where not everybody dies, and some hope remains - makes the point that you can't keep a good porn star down.
I don't know if the mystery Agatha Christie movie at the Torquay festival celebrating the Queen of Crime's work was quite as ridiculous, or as filthy, as Ten Little Maidens - and it probably was a far worthier movie. But I bet it didn't have an electrifying death by double-ended vibrating dildo in the middle.

words: mark gordon palmer

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