Luckily for us, there are not too many moments of pure horror in movies — images and scenes that cannot be shaken no matter how hard you try.
The hacks who make most shockers don’t have the intelligence or technical skill to truly unsettle us, so most of us can brush off junk like the “Saw” and “Hostel” pictures. The more graphic the violence in these pictures, the more we tune out. And nine times out of ten, the characters in B-horror movies are dopes who walk right into their fatal traps.
If you are in the mood for a great but really frightening melodrama you’ve got to check out the 1995 Claude Chabrol film, “La Ceremonie.”
In 2008, I hosted a screening of the picture at the Fairfield Library and was pleased to see that Chabrol’s adaptation of the Ruth Rendell novel, “A Judgement in Stone,” had lost none of its power.
Rendell has always been more interested in how crimes happen than in the traditional whodunit. She likes to examine the forces that push seemingly ordinary people to violent eruptions.
“A Judgement in Stone” is one of Rendell’s finest novels, with a much-discussed first sentence that gives away the ending of the story. The author names the perp and the victims flat out and readers who aren’t familiar with Rendell might wonder how she can keep us turning the pages toward a pre-ordained finale.
Instead of diminishing the suspense, Rendell increases it by making us wonder and wait to see how things could possibly end so badly for a group of people with no history of violent crime.
Chabrol made one major change in the Rendell book by omitting that opening declaration. He just tells the gripping story of how horrific things transpire after a bourgeois French family decides to hire a rather aloof but very hard-working young maid.
I think even viewers who have never read the novel feel a sense of dread very early on, when it becomes apparent there is something wrong with the maid. So, the film generates the same sort of suspense as the novel — we wonder what terrible things are going to happen.
Sandrine Bonaire (above left) gives a very understated performance as the maid, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about what is going on under a series of rather blank expressions.
The trigger for the events of the final third of the story arrives in the form of a discontented postal worker who dislikes most of her customers and matches the maid in terms of loneliness and emotional repression. The French call this sort of unhealthy pairing a folie a deux.
Chabrol regular Isabelle Huppert (above right) plays the part of the postal clerk with a subtly subversive humor that allows us to share her character’s resentment of the comfortable country lives of the wealthy Parisians who own lavish weekend getaway estates outside her village.
Chabrol turns the screws by making the rich family (below) sympathetic — despite their being oblivious to the lives of the underclass people all around them. Jacqueline Bisset plays the working wife and mother — she runs an art gallery — who is so grateful for her new maid’s work ethic that she doesn’t pay much attention to the young woman’s simmering anger.
The final 15 minutes of “La Ceremonie” are as creepy and as shocking as any horror movie finale without resorting to graphic displays of violence. It’s a movie most people remember long after the credits roll.