Diabolique (1996)


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Producer: , James G. Robinson

Diabolique (1996) Review

I've been awaiting this update of the 1955 classic French thriller with a mixture of nervous anticipation and deep-seated dread. The original Diabolique was one of the few examples of how thrillers ought to be made...and I figured Hollywood would find some way to screw up the remake. (They did, of course.)

The story is timeless. Evil boarding school principal Guy (Chazz Palmenteri) is married to ex-nun Mia (Isabelle Adjani), a nervous "child bride" with a penchant for heart medication. Guy also has at least one mistress, the cold-as-ice Nicole (Sharon Stone), and everyone knows of and quietly accepts the affair. They all work and live under the auspices of the school, and in the darkness of its halls, a plot is hatched by Mia and Nicole to do away with Guy for good. It starts to get a little hairy when, after a seemingly perfect murder is pulled off, things start to seem not-so-perfect and questions over potential witnesses and the actual life-or-death-ness of Guy begin to surface.

As it turns out, my skepticism that Diabolique could be successfully Americanized and transplanted into the future 40 years was partly unfounded. While it retains a distinctly nostalgic look and feel, the update is mostly a seamless job. Stone pulls off an excellently icy performance, reminding us why audiences like her so much, and Adjani, while maintaining a look of total surprise on her face for the whole film, is too innocently cute to think anything ill of. Pieces of Diabolique are stylish and cool, even bordering on edge-of-your-seat suspense at times.

Then come the problems. Enter Kathy Bates, whose philosophy about acting is "More is Better," as an obnoxious investigator who really gets on your nerves. Add Palmenteri's just-like-I-did-in-Jade performance and you've got a mixed-quality picture already. The kicker is the pasted-in additions to the script, as writer Don Roos just couldn't leave the original alone, adding in some long and uninteresting expository scenes, some silly high-tech bits, and, the worst of all, a new, schlocky horror-style ending. With all this, the picture starts to seriously fray around the edges.

What this all ends up with is some good performances and some bad ones in an uneven film with some high points and some low ones. The remake ends up nowhere near the mastery of the original, which still ought to surprise you even after you watch the 1996 version.