Films That Haunt Me: LES DIABOLIQUES

It’s November now, a time for Halloween hangovers before the Christmas rush begins in full force. After the horror rush of October, some might think it’s time to calm down, watch some wholesome films, get away from the macabre. And some can never get away. For those in the latter group, I continue my discussion of the grotesque and the Gothic, starting off with the noir nightmare LES DIABOLIQUES.

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This gem of French cinema is often referred to as the alternative to “Psycho,” perhaps because Hitchcock and Henri-Georges Clouzot – the director of this film – engaged in a bidding war for the book rights. When one sees the film, this couldn’t make more sense. It’s a dark, psychological, power-play crime story about a brutal man and two women – one his wife, the other his mistress – who conspire to get him out of their lives once and for all. Which they do. But what if he’s not done with them yet?

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So, yes, it sounds like a noir-thriller… until things start to happen. I can’t say what those things are, but just thinking about them horrifies me. Something about classic horror and bathtubs, man. But this is a film that brilliantly combines two genres that often get mistaken for one another. There is the reality and logic of a crime-thriller – murder, cover-up, detective work – but then, out of the dark, comes the cloying nightmare of horror. The latter component has less screen time, to be sure, but it is certainly provides the most memorable scene. Suffice to say, this has one of the best shock endings of all time.

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Its unique atmosphere also sets it apart from most noir-thrillers, which tend to have seedy, hard-boiled tones. Even before the murder takes place, this one adopts a sodden, autumnal aura that might be more at home in a ghost story, full of rainy skies and ill-kept corridors. With the quiet Gothic-ness of the beginning, the horror does not feel out of place.

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And that aura of the uncanny only serves to support the quietly-building hints within the film that something is not right. This is a master-class of tension. The occurrences are minute, almost imperceptible, until it dawns on the viewer that they’re terrified. And that’s when things really begin to happen. The film is patient and trusts that it will achieve its effect – a confidence that is often missing from modern genre offerings, which are too hasty to grab a quick scare, rather than sustaining a mood of dread.

This film is a dream come true for lovers of classic cinema and horror fans alike – perfect for these damp November afternoons, when we need a chill to keep us warm. And perhaps a heart-stopping shock, too.

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