June 16, 2011

Movie Rating: 9/10 BD Rating: 8/10

Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho owes a great debt to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 French frightener, Diabolique (Criterion), that was released five years prior. Some might argue that Hitchcock’s film was downright inspired by it. Both films challenged audience expectations by exploring the rarely traversed line between the uncanny and the ethereal, with several unnerving narrative twists that thrived on secrecy and encouraged repeat viewing.

Clouzot’s film never became as much a runaway success as Hitchcock’s, but it ranks as one of his finest white-knuckle thrillers, alongside 1953’s The Wages of Fear (also recently upgraded to Blu via Criterion). Like Psycho, re-watching Diabolique a second or even third time makes for an entirely different viewing experience, for better and worse. Knowing the outcome certainly detracts from the film’s mysterious intrigue, but it also adds new layers of maliciousness, namely between the two leading ladies. All and all, Diabolique’s famous finale is a tad preposterous, but knowing how it resolves allows us to pay closer attention to the build-up, which is in fact more impressive than the pay-off. 

The film’s wonderfully perverse plot involves a nasty headmaster whose abusive treatment of his fragile wife (played by the director’s own spouse, Véra Clouzot) and brash mistress leads to their murderous revenge. After some drugging and drowning, they transport his corpse to the school’s swimming pool, where it quickly vanishes. Is he still alive, or is his ghost now haunting them? Whatever you do, don’t watch the 1996 Sharon Stone remake to find out.

Criterion’s recent double dip (pun!) is somewhat lean on extras, but new essays, select commentaries, interviews and an introduction by Serge Bromberg (co-director on Clouzot’s Inferno) are more than satisfactory, if not incredibly dense. Since Criterion’s 1999 standard edition arrived with nothing more than a trailer, it’s pleasing to not only get a sparkling new high-def transfer, but also input from film buffs, historians and colleagues. The new edition’s superb retro cover design is equally lovely, but the main draw is the feature itself, which should be considered essential viewing to anyone who enjoys a good, classy scare.