It's not just that the remake of "Diabolique," the classic French thriller, is not as good as the original--that goes without saying. And given that the first version was made more than 40 years ago, before much of today's audience was even born, the argument could be made that whatever positive qualities it has are frankly irrelevant.
Would that that were so. Because this "Diabolique" has turned out so flat and unconvincing, so devoid of interest on so many levels, that unless you have a familiarity with the original it's impossible to understand how the current Sharon Stone incarnation, "brought into the 1990s," as one of the producers says with misplaced pride, managed to get made in the first place.
That 1954 film, called "Les Diaboliques" in its home country and based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, owed most of its considerable international success to the fiendish skill and dark nature of its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose other films include "The Wages of Fear" and the thoroughly misanthropic "The Raven."
Though sometimes called the French Alfred Hitchcock, Clouzot had a much more pessimistic, not to say black-hearted view of human nature, and his scabrous contempt for his characters was essential in making the original film, the story of a murder plot that seemed to simultaneously succeed and fail, as unsettling an experience as it was.
In place of Clouzot, the new version has come up with Jeremiah Chechik, whose previous credits ("National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Benny & Joon," "Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill") make this the equivalent of assigning Captain Kangaroo to direct "The Silence of the Lambs."
Not that anyone could do much with the film's phlegmatic script, credited to Don Roos, which does start out following the broad outlines of the original but insists on adding fake-glib dialogue and painful caricatures to the proceedings.
The setting is the St. Anselm School for Boys, a warehouse of last resort for incorrigible youths located outside of Pittsburgh. More of a reprobate than any of his students is headmaster Guy Baran (a woefully miscast Chazz Palminteri), an overbearing sadist and martinet who terrorizes the two women in his life.
Wife Mia (French actress Isabelle Adjani) is a saintly former nun with a woebegone, brooding look about her. Troubled by a heart condition, Mia is prone to collapsing into artistic swoons at slight provocation.
Guy's mistress Nicole Horner is definitely made of sterner stuff, as anyone played by Stone inevitably is. Given to wearing tailored 1940s suits on all occasions, Nicole is a smart-mouthed, cigarette-smoking hussy whose provocative, blood-red lips pretty much define her character.
Far from being antagonists, the vamp and the church mouse find a point of unity in their mutual enmity toward the swinish Guy. They hatch what seems like a foolproof plot to do away with him for good, but this nominally perfect crime soon threatens to unravel in ways that completely perplex the perpetrators and draw the attention of Shirley Vogel (Kathy Bates), a local detective with time on her hands.
With no natural feeling for this kind of pulp material, Chechik and Roos rely on weary devices like thunder claps, portentous music and pseudo-meaningful looks to remedy a lack of narrative drive. Of all the actors, only Stone seems to be having any fun as opposed to being lost, and the entire picture has a clunky, hand-me-down feeling. While the original fully earned its diabolical title, this retread doesn't even come close.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence/terror, sexuality and language. Times guidelines: not as frightening as it thinks it is.
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Sharon Stone: Nicole Horner
Isabelle Adjani: Mia Baran
Chazz Palminteri: Guy Baran
Kathy Bates: Shirley Vogel
James G. Robinson presents, a Morgan Creek production in association with Marvin Worth Productions, released by Warner Bros. Director Jeremiah Chechik. Producers Marvin Worth, James G. Robinson. Executive producers Gary Barber, Bill Todman Jr., Jerry Offsay, Chuck Binder. Screenplay by Don Roos. Cinematographer Peter James. Editor Carol Littleton. Music Randy Edelman. Production design Leslie Dilley. Art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator Michael Seirton. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.