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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Movies over the years have generally given us two types of domestic help: reliable, trusty souls devoted entirely to their duties (Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day), and less reliable types with dark secrets and hidden motives. The first kind are the servants we all wish we could have; the second kind appeal to our own darker nature—they're the servants we secretly wish on our well-heeled betters.

Sophie, the main character of the French psychological thriller La Cérémonie (1996, R), definitely falls into the latter category. Hired as a live-in maid by a wealthy family in a remote country mansion, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire) at first just seems a little quirky. But when she befriends an equally odd postal clerk (Isabelle Huppert) in the nearby village, strange things start to happen. A Hollywood director would turn such material—based on a book by mystery writer Ruth Rendell—into predictable fare, The Hand That Scrubs the Toilet or something. But veteran French director Claude Chabrol lets the story wind slowly, piling mundane oddities and offhand revelations on top of each other until they build a sinister momentum. By the end, the violent conclusion seems as inevitable as it is shocking. Bonnaire and Huppert are wonderfully disquieting, coming on like Thelma and Louise's off-kilter step-sisters. And Chabrol is so deceptively nonchalant with his material that he doesn't unveil his final twist until the film's closing credits.

The classic spooky servant, of course, is Judith Anderson as the stern Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's sumptuous adaptation of Rebecca (1940). The film—which won that year's Best Picture Oscar—stars Joan Fontaine as the new wife of aristocrat Laurence Olivier. But Anderson, the devoted servant of Olivier's dead first wife, resents the intruder and makes dark allegations about what happened to her late mistress. A gothic classic.

Anderson was the model for countless malignant maids to follow, including those played by Madeline Kahn in the Mel Brooks spoofs Young Frankenstein (1974, PG) and High Anxiety (1977, PG). Young Frankenstein is the classic of the two, but both offer plenty of laughs.

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