Diabolique (1996)

Diabolique is a great chiller that ranks with the best of Hitchcock. It draws you into its web of guilt and complicity, and it takes a long time to shake off. Now for the bad news: The Diabolique I’m talking about is the 1955 French thriller by the ingenious director Henri-Georges Clouzot, a quiet master of the form. The new remake bearing that title might as well be called Plastique.

Director Jeremiah Chechik apparently got the job because of the flair for the macabre he showed in his previous work — National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Benny and Joon. Diabolique is another example of American non-entities being allowed to remake French classics (The Birdcage is an exception). To be fair, Chechik does try to make the movie look and feel European, and he and writer Don Roos (Single White Female) preserve Clouzot’s plot twists (while adding some lame new ones).

But if you’ve seen the original — well, it’s like watching a remake of Psycho and waiting to see whether the new filmmakers will screw up the shower scene. Both versions of Diabolique hinge on a bathroom shock comparable to the one Janet Leigh got. In 1955, nobody saw it coming. In 1996, you’ve likely seen it imitated (if not duplicated) dozens of times even if you missed the original. Does Chechik screw it up? Not really, but he doesn’t improve on it, either — so why do it?

The story remains the same, though transplanting it from France to Pittsburgh seems pointless. (Maybe Chechik hoped some Night of the Living Dead vibes would rub off on him.) What we have now is just a movie about a jerk (Chazz Palminteri) and the two women — his sickly wife (Isabelle Adjani) and his former mistress (Sharon Stone) — who conspire to murder him and are taunted with hints that they botched the murder. The key phrase there is “just a movie”; Clouzot’s film didn’t feel like just a movie. He wasn’t a droll trickster like Hitchcock: he grabbed you with cold hands and never let go, right up until that unforgettable final line, “I saw her. I know I saw her.”

The new Diabolique mostly dispenses with subtlety, contenting itself with regularly scheduled cathartic jolts that pass for suspense in our degraded culture. Clouzot staged the bathroom scene with a nightmarish detachment, whereas Chechik’s version is more like Night of the Living Dead Guy in the Tub. The actors are dead, too. We know Stone can play a cast-iron conniver, Palminteri a lout, and Adjani a vulnerable waif. They go through the motions here, and halfway through Diabolique I started thinking how much more intriguing it might have been if Stone’s and Adjani’s roles were reversed. As a rule, when you sit there mentally recasting a movie for lack of anything else to chew on, the movie is in trouble.

One welcome addition is a female detective, played by Kathy Bates apparently after she watched a Columbo marathon (Columbo, by the way, was inspired by the detective in the 1955 version); she wears a cruddy coat and actually says “Oh, one more thing…” Bates’ no-nonsense performance rides right over the insipid climax, in which Sharon Stone gets funky with a rake. Clouzot made you share the guilt of murderesses; Chechik makes you ponder the horrors of yard equipment. C’est Hollywood.

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