FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Les Diaboliques

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

The frail Christina (Véra Clouzot) is married to the cruel and bullish Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) who runs the school that is paid for by her wealth. He's having an affair with another teacher at the school, Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and is as abusive to one as he is to the other. Despite their seeming rivalry, the two women share a close relationship and hatch a plan to murder him and dispose of the body in the school swimming pool. Everything seems to go off without a hitch until the swimming pool has drained and the body has mysteriously disappeared. Soon, mysterious occurrences start happening around the school, suggesting Delassalle might be as dead as he first appeared.

Suspense is a tricky thing to get right. You can be building it up slowly and carefully for several scenes before one thing ruins the moment and takes all that suspense away. If you lose your audience, you lose your effect and any moments after that don't carry the same weight. It was something an earlier film in this ongoing feature was guilty of (The Blood on Satan's Claw) and it can leave a narrative feeling disjointed. Les Diaboliques, however, is a masterclass in films of its type and Clouzot is rightly compared to Hitchcock (who reportedly went after the rights to the book on which this is based too) in his ability to rack up the tension to near-unbearable levels.

After the intense torture factor of a film like Audition or the effects-laden adventure of Deep Rising, it's refreshing to watch something that uses the basics, but uses them well. Clouzot's film revolves around spinning the macabre out of in the innocuous; a lingering close up on the bottle containing the all-important sedative, the tapping of a typewriter or the sound of bathwater through the pipes become ominous and threatening. Clouzot also relies heavily on lighting and shadows to make everything that bit more eerie as lit windows reveal silhouettes and dark corridors hide people walking within them. 

Paul Muerisse is given only a few scenes in which to cement his portrayal of the vicious Delassalle and he seizes it with relish, creating a figure of such malice that sympathy is immediately placed with the women, despite the plan they are hatching. It also ensures that Delassalle and the threat he poses towers over the film and it is never called into question the kind of damage he could wreak from beyond the supposed grave. Véra Clouzot's fragility and constant state of anxiety contrasts nicely with the quiet strength and sophistication of Simone Signoret, balancing out as the narrative progresses. There is also some excellent light relief from the supporting cast and a great turn from Charles Vanel as a proto-Columbo detective.

The final twist is there to be figured out all the way through the film; hints are dropped and there's a massive case of Chekov's Heart Condition that looms over the proceedings like an ominous ticking bomb. However, the film sweeps you up so completely in its atmospheric suspense that it doesn't occur to you to think about it, nor does it matter when that twist comes. It's a gripping finale, packed full of images that linger long after the film ends.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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