A Kiss Before Dying

These days Bret Easton Ellis isn't the only one accountable for giving the fictional American psycho a bad name. Case in point: the botch that writer-director James Dearden makes of A Kiss Before Dying, starring Matt Dillon as a babyfaced lady-killer and Sean Young as not one but two of the ladies (she plays twin sisters) who bring out his murderous impulses. Based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, Sliver), Kiss became an enjoyably trashy movie in 1956 with Robert Wagner in the Dillon role and Joanne Woodward – in only her second featured role – as one of the sisters (Virginia Leith played the other). Comparing the original film with this update is a potent illustration of how far we haven't come in crafting thrillers that excite and amuse us without leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

It's not that this remake ups the ante on male hatred of women. Dillon's Jonathan Corliss kisses a victim before dispatching her; he doesn't debase her and wrap her dead body in plastic the way the evil Bob does on TV's Twin Peaks; he doesn't rape her corpse the way the title character does in "Mind of a Lunatic," by the rap group the Geto Boys; he doesn't skin her to make a "girl suit" the way Jame Gumb does in The Silence of the Lambs; and he doesn't have oral sex with her decapitated head the way Patrick Bateman does in the Ellis novel. In fact, Corliss has no particular animus toward women, except when they get in the way of his master plan for success. He is, as Dillon has put it, "the villain of the Eighties – an ambitious, determined yuppie, a killer in a expensive Italian suit."

Dearden has reconceived Levin's character – originally a tormented outsider through whom we can see flashes of ourselves – as a symbol of what's wrong with our culture. Though Dearden gets the surface right – the movie looks sleek – he skimps on characterization, a blunder he didn't make when he created the vengeful lover Glenn Close played in Fatal Attraction. Dillon is a potent combination of looks, charm and menace, as he proved in Drugstore Cowboy, but Dearden's script fails to provide the raw material that would let him go beyond the stereotype.

Corliss seduces Dory (Young in blond hair) because he wants to get close to her tycoon father, Thor Carlsson, stolidly played by Max von Sydow. But before this social climber even meets the ultraconservative magnate, Dory informs Corliss that she's pregnant and will probably be disinherited. He reacts to the setback by inviting Dory to city hall, ostensibly to get married. Instead, he takes her to the roof and gives her the literal heave-ho so that he can start dating her sister Ellen (Young again, this time in dark hair).

In the 1956 film, the buildup to Dory's murder took about forty minutes. We got to know the quirks of the characters and explore their psyches. Wagner's performance lets the insecurity and desperation of the character come through. And Woodward is tremulous and affecting as Dory. By the time of the roof scene, the suspense is fierce. We think that at any moment Corliss might change his mind about killing her. Even after the fateful shove, there is no shot of the broken body. The horror of the moment is revealed on Corliss's stricken face and in the way his hands shake.

The remake doesn't bother with such subtleties. The film is barely five minutes old when Corliss hurls Dory off the ledge; Dearden lets us watch her body slam the ground, splattering passersby with blood. Though Dearden's Kiss delivers more bang for the buck than its predecessor, it offers infinitely less entertainment. Dearden merely walks the cast through a gauntlet of film noir clichés. Corliss deserts his widowed mother (Diane Ladd) and is soon in business in Manhattan as Ellen's husband and her dad's right-hand man. But questions about Dory's death persist. Ellen's suspicions are aroused, and once again Corliss's killer instinct is awakened.

Dillon does his best under the circumstances, but Young – whose eccentricities can be effective (No Way Out) or exasperating (The Boost) – gives her first bland performance. As both sisters, she appears narcotized by the film's by-the-numbers approach. Perhaps Dearden thought he would catch hell from pressure groups if he pumped some wit and pulp life into the violence. We live in sensitive times – Brian De Palma has been accused of misogyny since Dressed to Kill; Jonathan Demme is denounced for homophobia in The Silence of the Lambs; and the directors of The Godfather III, State of Grace, Miller's Crossing and New Jack City are charged with stereotyping, respectively, Italians, the Irish, Jews and blacks as gangsters.

Good thrillers, like Hitchcock's, have a fun-house appeal. They heighten reality; they don't reflect it. But we're losing that perspective. Imagine the outcry today over the shower scene in Psycho, the homosexual subtext in Strangers on a Train, the wartime depiction of Germans in Life-boat. Dearden avoids that kind of controversy. For all the gore, the film is emotionally bloodless. Dearden has drained it of surprise, humor and humanity. His Kiss is a slick package that passes by our eyes without leaving a mark on our consciousness, much less our dreams.