A remote gothic boarding school. A headmaster so sleazy-sadistic his wife and mistress collaborate in a plan to kill him. A briny swimming pool in which a body gets dumped, only to disappear. A bathtub with a very sick surprise waiting at the bottom… Just about all the elements that made Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 French thriller Diabolique a landmark of tantalizingly perverse suspense have been retained in the American remake. Yet watching the new, glossy Diabolique, you might never guess it was based on one of the most ingenious thrillers ever made — a movie so original Hitchcock himself borrowed more than a few tricks from it in Psycho.
In the new version, Chazz Palminteri, oozing goatish vulgarity, is the loathsome boys’-school headmaster, and Isabelle Adjani is his saintly lamb of a wife. Sharon Stone, strutting around in leopard skin and angora, is the ice-blooded mistress who lures Adjani into joining in a payback homicide scheme. The scene in which the two women hold Palminteri’s wriggling body under the bathtub water is a queasy reminder that murder isn’t pretty. But just when the film should begin fraying our nerves, it turns poky and routine — a nightmare defused in the harsh light of overexplicitness. Diabolique is the story of a corpse that won’t stay dead, and Clouzot, like Hitchcock, gave homicidal grisliness a frisson of supernatural dread. Watching the original, we’re never quite sure whether it’s a thriller or a horror film: Someone may be playing a trick on our heroines, but it sneaks up on them like a guilty bad dream. The new version retains the basic architecture of Clouzot’s plot but leaves out his teasing suggestion of otherworldly horror. And without it, the film, in its glum prosaic way, is simply killing time before the final surprise.
Sharon Stone, in a familiar role, hones her smirky, hostile hauteur to a witty edge. Adjani is as beautiful as ever (she looks like a downy French angel), but if anything, she does long-suffering masochism with almost too much conviction. The biggest change in the new Diabolique is that it’s been recast as a feminist revenge tract. This means that there’s now an overtone of lesbian sisterhood between the two women, and that the big twist segues into a luridly cheesy exploitation climax. It means, as well, that the detective who arrives halfway through is played (by Kathy Bates) as a cookie so tough she delights in making wisecracks about her own breast cancer. There must be a better way to creep an audience out.