Sunday, October 18, 2009

Les Diaboliques

When I began teaching at Morrinsville Collge in 1960 the local cinema had once a month on a Tuesday evening a horror film. There were showings of Vincent Price movies such as The Fly while ones about Dracula and vampires were also common. It was customary for a row of nurses to sit in the seats in front of a group of us young male teachers. Lots of giggles and ‘boos’. Simple days. Not the slash and gash, buckets of blood, Friday 13th type of the modern era.

It was lots of fun; until one night. It was a 1955 French film, Les Diaboliques, given the English title The Fiends. In it a downtrodden wife (Vera Clouzot) and mistress (Simone Signoret), united by his bullying, decide to murder the man by drowning him a bath and dumping the body in the school swimming pool. Background - the wife had money and the school was hers. She also had a weak heart.

Everything went according to plan except the body didn’t float and when the pool was drained it wasn’t there. A number of strange happenings occur, including the return of his dry-cleaned suit, and a boy claiming to have his slingshot confiscated by the headmaster and it appearing amongst his possessions.

The strain is too much for the wife and she is supposed to stay in bed – a perfect opportunity for the director to have her in a see-through nightie and vulnerable. On the fifth night after the murder there are mysterious noises and happenings around the building. The wife gets up to investigate – she hears typing and there is a message in his typewriter and suddenly the lights in the room go out. She flees to the security of the bedroom and locks the door. Clutching her heart she rushes to the bathroom for some water.

There in the water-filled bath is her drowned husband. Slowly he begins to rise up. In 1960 I was sitting between two burly men – one played rugby for Waikato, the other went on to become deputy-principal of Auckland Grammar. Wimps they were not. One clutched my knee in horror as the corpse rose, the other buried his face into my chest. On screen the wife dramatically collapsed and died from a heart attack.

Fully erect the husband removes the false eyeballs which had suggested he was dead. He checks his wife’s pulse, unlocks the door and in rushes the mistress. They embrace. They were the fiends, plotting the wife’s demise. ‘She was tougher than I expected’ he said. She asks how much they will get from selling the school. ‘About ten to fifteen years’ says a detective suddenly appearing.

I got it out on DVD yesterday. It is a classic of the horror thriller genre, very French of its era. It had more early humour than I remembered. It was classic black and white camera work. The build up of tension was still very good despite my foreknowledge of what was to happen. I would say that the final ten minutes were amongst the most powerful cinematic experiences I’ve had. It has stood the test of time. I can see why it had such an effect upon three young men so many years ago.

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