Horror, like comedy, is generally looked down on as a genre because it seeks to evoke a visceral response in viewers. There are those who would claim scaring or amusing an audience should never be the objective of high art. Yet directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, masters of their craft, arguably scaled new heights when they attempted horror.
Les Diaboliques (1955) is a film that influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho and one that deserves comparison with that macabre masterpiece. Indeed, one viewer wrote to Hitchcock: “Sir, after seeing Les Diaboliques my daughter was afraid to take a bath. Now she has seen your Psycho and is afraid to take a shower. What should I do with her?” The director’s reply? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
Rumour has it that when director Henri-Georges Clouzot bought the film rights to the original novel, he beat Hitchcock by just a few hours. The master of suspense, however, admitted the influence of Les Diaboliques on Psycho, and the author of the original Psycho novel, Robert Bloch, has named this his all-time favourite horror film.
As with the events at the Bates Motel, the less said about the plot the better and, like Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Clouzot’s film included a disclaimer urging filmgoers not to give away any spoilers. It worked out for Hitchcock in the end because, although he was unable to film the source material by novelists Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, he would later turn one of their subsequent efforts into Vertigo.
The plot is deceptively simple. In a failing boarding school on the outskirts of Paris, the wife and mistress of an abusive headmaster hatch a plan to kill him. All seems to go to plan until the corpse vanishes and a series of strange occurrences plague the protagonists.
The director’s wife at the time, Véra Clouzot, is excellent, as is Simone Signoret, despite issues with the filmmaker during shooting. Signoret failed to pay close attention to the contract and didn’t realise she would be paid for eight weeks regardless of the length of the shoot. After 16 gruelling weeks of work, she was no longer on speaking terms with either of the Clouzots. In a tragic coda, her co-star, who portrays a character with a weak heart here, would be dead within a few years of a heart attack.
Netflix has rightly received criticism in some quarters for showing so few films made before 1970, so for those interested in an innovative and influential horror to enjoy in the aftermath of Halloween, this is well worth seeking out on alternative platforms. Les Diaboliques is undoubtedly one of the finest pictures of the 1950s and proof, if proof were needed, that an old, black-and-white film with subtitles can be incomparably thrilling.
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