Diabolique (1996)

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*. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea . . .
*. I mean, the cast was made in heaven. It would be impossible to top the perfection of Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, and Charles Vanel from the original, but this movie comes close. Sharon Stone is the icy and trashy blonde, Isabelle Adjani is pale and wilting in a pre-Raphaelite kind of way. The two look great together in a two shot. Chazz Palminteri is tough and sleazy. Kathy Bates is a bulldog. And Spalding Grey steals his few scenes as the teacher you always hated.
*. The script isn’t bad either. It’s full of catty dialogue and in general plays pretty sharp.

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*. Explaining where it all went wrong is difficult. Yes, the ending is (in the judgment of Kim Newman) “maybe the worst ending ever put on a mystery thriller.” Jason lives in a stupid and entirely unconvincing homage to teen horror flicks. The pool is so shallow, couldn’t Guy just put his legs under him and stand up when the women are drowning him? Come on.
*. Roger Ebert makes a good point in his review, comparing the ending here to the very similar bastardization of The Vanishing when Hollywood re-made it. Entertainment is not without its ideologies.
*. But even before all that the movie was in trouble. Why? As I say, it’s difficult to explain because explaining suspense is sort of like explaining what makes a comedy funny. You can’t really take a joke apart. If you want to know why this movie doesn’t work you have to understand why the original does, and that’s harder than it seems.
*. Hitchcock’s Psycho works. Van Sant’s doesn’t. And yet Van Sant’s film was a nearly shot-for-shot remake. You can see how subtle a thing it is.
*. A lot of it has to do with timing, the key ingredient in comedy and suspense. And you either have that sense of timing or you don’t. This movie doesn’t.

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*. Another thing that’s missing is atmosphere. There’s no sense that this is a third-rate school being run on a budget, the kind of place where we might expect all kinds of seedy goings-on. Nor is there any convincing presentation of the spirituality of Adjani’s character, just a bit of Catholic bric-a-brac scattered about.
*. One of the bigger problems is that we never feel that Guy is really dead and that something supernatural may be happening. The original sold you on this, but here it’s all just a question of finding out who’s doing the messing around. The climax of Guy rising from the tub doesn’t have any of the same resonance of a vengeful corpse or a deranged vision.
*. Who on earth took the pictures of Stone and Adjani with the trunk? This is a plot point that makes no sense at all.
*. It seems to me to be a movie of its time, and it pays the price. As I may have mentioned before, the ’90s were a bad decade for film. Aside from the silly horror-film ending, we also get a Thelma & Louise set up with a dash of Basic Instinct. All of which are entirely alien to the spirit of the original.
*. Some people see this as a “so bad it’s good” film, and Stone’s sometimes campy wardrobe assists in this. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad film until the end, but it is ineffective as a thriller.

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