Mia (Isabelle Adjani) gets up one night to visit the bathroom, unaware that she is being watched through the window by a Peeping Tom. An ex-nun, she is the wife of Guy Baran (Chazz Palminteri), a cruel man and headmaster of her private school who keeps her under his thumb largely by intimidation. She has one ally in her plight, and that is fellow teacher Nicole (Sharon Stone), who also happens to be having an affair with Guy, but has grown to despise him over the months, and now that tonight Mia is suffering some kind of heart attack that he doesn't do anything about, he could be signing his own death warrant...
Whereas director Jeremiah Chechik was signing his own career death warrant with the double whammy of this and The Avengers in the space of two years, a pair of remakes that effectively derailed his prospects for ever helming a proposed blockbuster ever again, but then, that's what happens when projects viewed to be guaranteed moneymakers end up failing badly. In spite of that, Diabolique's bastardisation of Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic horror-thriller has gone onto secure a small following over the years since its flop release, and not only among those who like to laugh at bad movies; granted, most of them never saw the creepy, sinister original.
But this film acknowledges that most of those watching this would have no intention of watching an old black and white French movie from the fifties anyway, as made clear in a scene where a slobbish Shirley Knight stumbles across a showing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? while channel surfing and observes that she'll watch it when it's in colour. Was this the remakers having a dig at those who couldn't stand to watch any movie more than ten years old, which may well have been most of their potential audience? And were they trying to get into the good books of those viewers who loved the original and were dubious about the quality of the newer incarnation?
The filmmakers were fighting a losing battle if that was the case, as the main problem with the plot was that it had been so influential back then, with Alfred Hitchcock being one of its admirers, that it spawned a new genre of chillers with supposed twist endings, leaving a few generations of moviegoers resolutely unsurprised by the devices that Diabolique implemented as if they were as fresh as a daisy, and not as mouldy as leftover cheese. By the time the two women have planned and executed their plan to drug and drown Guy in the bathtub, then dispose of the body, you'll most likely be way ahead of them, especially when the deceased seems to be making waves as if he were still alive and waiting, watching.
What Chechik and company did bring to the table was a dose of radical feminism, so that here all men are worthless, and the females are the ones who have to prevail, with any attempt to collaborate with the opposite gender doomed to failure. It's not only Mia and Nicole who underline this, as Kathy Bates shows up as a cancer survivor detective for some off-colour humour and digs at the menfolk; indeed, you could almost see this as lesbian in its leanings, something Chechik does little to dispel as he frames his two leading ladies as if they were starring in a gay ABBA video. What they should have been aiming for was outright camp, something you can see hints of in various performances, yet with its dejected air there's not much to tickle the funny bone as the story drags badly. Things do liven up for one of the most boneheaded, "Right on, girlfriend!" endings of any thriller, as they forget about class and restraint and prove they had no decent notion of how to wrap any of this up sensibly. Music by Randy Edelman. Oh yeah, and that is future superproducer J.J. Abrams with the video camera.