In the 1980s and 1990, Hollywood took a fancy to remaking European classics – the horror movie remake wouldn’t begin in earnest until the turn of the century. More often than not, these remakes missed what made these movies classics in the first place. One of the most common flaws of American updates of Euro-thrillers was to replace nihilistic endings with the more traditional Hollywood happy ending. Look no further than the American remake of Dutch classic The Vanishing starring Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys, Flatliners). A few years after that failed reboot, Hollywood tried again with the French classic Les Diaboliques. Sharon Stone, who reinvented herself as the ‘ go to’ femme fatale after Basic Instinct, got headlining status. Neither critics nor audiences bought it. In addition to being a box office and critical dude, the Diabolique remake earned Stone a Razzies nomination.
At a private school for boys, headmaster Guy Baran (Michel Delassalle) rules over his staff and students with an iron fist. And the cruel headmaster exerts the same control over both his wife, Nicole, and his mistress, Christina. Finally, tired of the endless abuse, the two women conspire to murder their abuser. But when the headmaster’s body disappears and ominous messages for the women turn up, they realize that either someone knows what they did … or Guy is still alive.
Les Diaboliques (1955) a Classic, Influential Psychological Thriller
Directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Henri Clouzot and based on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel She Who Was No More, Les Diaboliques is considered a modern classic on par with Alfred Hitchcock’s best work. In fact, Les Diabolique probably influenced Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho. By today’s standards, Les Diabolique’s plot seems a bit predictable and quaint. That’s what happens when a movie is influential. Over time, we often confuse the imitators from the originators. But at the time of its release, Les Diaboliques was a novel approach to the psychological thriller. For a movie released in the mid-1950s, its story of a philandering, abusive school headmaster would have shocked American audiences. Moreover, its mystery and twist ending would have made M. Night Shyamalan envious. Though its ending somewhat conformed to the Hays Code, it was far more downbeat than what North American audiences were accustomed to at the time.
Over time, we often confuse the imitators from the originators. But at the time of its release, Les Diaboliques was a novel approach to the psychological thriller.
In regards to aesthetics and style, Clouzot masterfully uses the black and white format, particularly in the nighttime scenes. His use of shadows – like the best of film noir – create an unsettling environment. In addition, Clouzot’s use of sound, or absence thereof, is a master class in how to generate suspense. Whether it’s the tap dripping onto the shower curtain covering Michel Delassalle or the water draining from the tub when Nicole and Christina dispose of the body, Les Diaboliques juxtaposes mundane sounds with silence to great effect. And the thriller’s big twist still works based on nothing more than the visual elements alone. If there’s a problem with Les Diaboliques it’s that modern audiences will likely find the pacing to be glacial. But that’s an artifact of the time period in which the movie was made and hardly a reason to dismiss its significance.
Diabolique (1996) Another Example of Hollywood Remakes Missing the Point
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hollywood was fascinated with remaking French films – from comedy to thrillers. And they had some success with their adaptations. Three Men and a Baby, True Lies, and The Birdcage were box office hits that also earned critical praise. And what about the 1996 Diabolique remake? Not so much. Even if director Jeremiah S. Chechik hadn’t remade a movie that’s arguably a classic thriller, his Diabolique would still rank no better than a middling 90s psychological thriller. By the way, Chechik gets a pass on this one by virtue of having directed National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Here, Chechik and writer Don Roos make odds tweaks to the story while retaining things that could have used a contemporary twist. That is, Diabolique keeps much of its old-fashioned mystery and, as a result, feels predictable.
What’s really missing from the 1996 remake is any sense of urgency as well as suspense and atmosphere.
Yet Chechik and Roos opt to spruce things up with some exploitative nudity and more explicit sexual content. Other elements of the original movie are slavishly followed often as nothing more than red herrings. For some reason, the 1996 Diabolique updates Mia’s character as a former nun who lost her faith. Maybe there was some thematic purpose to the revision but it’s never developed. In addition, Diabolique inexplicably introduces Kathy Bates’ (Misery) detective to the story for seemingly no other reason than to waste Bates’ talent. Chechik and Roos don’t seem to know what to do with the source material. What’s really missing from the 1996 remake is any sense of urgency as well as suspense and atmosphere. This a plodding effort more likely to have you looking at your watch than sitting on the edge of your seat. And while Sharon Stone’s performance wasn’t Razzie-worthy, it’s certainly a bit stilted.
Diabolique a ‘Mauvais’ Attempt at Re-Imagining a French Thriller Classic
The gap in quality between the French original Les Diaboliques and Diabolique is a massive chasm. On one hand, the original French thriller is a masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling and tension. Flashforward 30 years later and the Diabolique remake is a listless ‘thriller’ with an almost complete absence of suspense. Everything about the remake feels cynical and contrived. Even Sharon Stone looks completely bored. Not even a comparison with other psychological thrillers from the 90s helps this dud. But setting Diabolique next to its predecessor is an absolute exercise in futility.