GREAT FILMS: The Vanishing (1988)

The Vanishing (Netherlands/ France, 1988)
Directed by George Sluizer
Starring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus

In my review of The Stepford Wives, I spoke about how an inadequate remake can often put audiences off seeing the original version of a given film. Whether through his fault or that of the studio, Frank Oz took all that was gripping and intelligent about Bryan Forbes' classic sci-fi chiller, and turned into a brainless, nonsensical mush which was more about gay stereotyping than the subjugation of women.
The Vanishing is a film which suffered the exact same fate, albeit with the same director at the helm. Five years after the original was met with critical acclaim, George Sluizer found his hand forced by Hollywood and the result was a complete disaster. But like The Stepford Wives, no remake can undermine what the original always was: a great and gripping psychological thriller with depth, subtlety and one of the scariest endings of all time.
In describing the difference between the two versions, Mark Kermode puts it best: "the original was about the banality of evil, but the remake becomes about the evil of banality." Kermode's comments may seem facetious but they do ring true over how the central idea was completely missed by Hollywood. Serial killer films were hot property after the Oscar success of The Silence of the Lambs, but executives still couldn't handle the idea that a seemingly ordinary person could commit such a horrifying crime. To sell the idea, they turned him into a catalogue of serial killer clichés, making the film about the very opposite of what it was meant to be about.
Unlike most serial killer films, we know from early on in The Vanishing who the killer is. What we aren't so sure about is exactly what he's done, how he did it, or why he did it. And while most Hollywood films would follow the protagonist on his obsessive quest for the truth, The Vanishing spends most of its second act looking at the killer's life, in all its plain and boring detail. The killer is revealed to be intelligent and a perfectionist, but to all appearances he is otherwise perfectly normal. He certainly doesn't stand out in a crowd, to the point where he can be sitting not five feet away and we only realise he was there long after he's gone.
The Vanishing has frequently been compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, and certainly it does demonstrate the difference between mystery, and suspense which Hitch always sought to emphasise. This is not a whodunit in which we have to join the dots while trying to be emotionally engaged; we are right in the minds of the characters, trying to figure out what the protagonist should do next as well as struggling to decode the killer. While the film is a lot more understated than some of Hitch's later works, there are through-lines with Vertigo in the themes of obsession, lost love and the tragedy of the central character.
What makes The Vanishing so chilling is how normal and understated everything is. Even when it comes to explaining the killer's reason for taking the girl, Sluizer resists giving us a ridiculously complicated backstory involving childhood trauma, the loss of parents or anything else remotely histrionic. The killer simply realised from a young age that he was a sociopath, capable of taking decisions no sensible person could - like throwing himself off a balcony. Having been called a hero for saving someone from drowning, he wanted to see if he was capable of the opposite: committing the worst crime imaginable. He isn't overtly malicious or vindictive towards our main character, he just doesn't have the impulse to stop himself, and that makes him all the more terrifying.
Sluizer is quite brilliant at marrying the banal and the creepy in this film. In one lengthy sequence, we see the killer rehearsing how he's going to drug his victim. We see him working out how long the chloroform will last, closely monitoring his heart rate, practicing with the handkerchief walking around the car, and even learning different languages. In an American slasher film, these scenes would be sleazy and probably backed with forbidding music, but here there are downplayed in a clinical manner. We then cut to him picking up his daughter from school, repeating all the moves he practiced, right up to locking her door. What seems innocent to her and natural to him is enough to leave us shuddering in horror.
The film reinforces its naturalism through a series of rounded, well-written characters. Hitchcock once said that exposition is a bitter pill that has to be sugar-coated for audiences; in order for the suspension of disbelief to remain intact, exposition has to sound like dialogue that ordinary people would say. Tim Krabbé does a masterful job in adapting his own novel for the screen, and Sluizer compliments the screenplay by directing his cast to downplay even the most extraordinary scenes. Even on the lengthy drive where the killer is explaining what led him to kidnap the man's wife, it still feels like something a normal person would say, further reinforcing the believability of the situation and the creepiness of the killer.
The Vanishing also deserves credit on this front for its central protagonist. We are meant to somewhat dislike Rex Hofman for his inability to commit to relationships, right down to him leaving Saskia terrified in the tunnel while he goes off to look for fuel. But over the course of the film this dislike mutates into a feeling of sadness for him, with his inability to commit reinforcing the guilt he feels. His obsession becomes so extreme that his new girlfriend describes their relationship as a "ménage a trois". He and the killer are in different ways broken men, both somewhat distant from the world while always trying to connect with it.
The performances in The Vanishing are superb across the board. Gene Bervoets is really convincing as Rex, carrying off the obsession and frustration of his character every bit as well as Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. Johanna ter Steege compliments him beautifully as Saskia, contrasting her lighter, more carefree moments with believable fear and terror when in the tunnel or describing her dreams. And Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu is quite remarkable as Raymond Lemorne, constantly pulling back from any gesture that could give too much away. He manages to appear perfectly normal while making even the slightest glance burn deep down into your soul.
The film is also very effective in its use of symbolism. Saskia's recurring dream involves her floating through space inside a golden egg, reflecting the original title of Krabbé's novel. In the final version of her dream, which she relays to Rex in the car, she dreamt that two such eggs would collide in space, and that this event would signify the end of something important. What seems like a throwaway comment to kill time becomes a great use of foreshadowing as we move towards the climax.
The ending of The Vanishing is nothing short of terrifying. It's these last five minutes which lift the film from a slow-burning, unusual character study into a deeply chilling thriller. The big reveal, in which Rex wakes up to find that he's been buried alive, progresses through multiple levels of terror. First, there is the initial claustrophobia of being in a coffin. Then there is the horror of realising that Saskia went through the same fate. Then, there is the realisation of the dream as foreshadowing, which leads on to thoughts about predestination. And finally, there is a cold acceptance and death; Rex clings onto his memories of Saskia, finally confessing his love for her, and his death is mirrored by the eerie silence of the final shot.
The Vanishing is a truly great psychological chiller with immense depth of theme and character and an ending that never fails to leave you shaken. While it is a little slow at times, and not all of the unusual musical choices work, it's highly effective in every other way, as a thriller, a character study and a really scary horror film. It is one of the best films of the late-1980s and remains essential viewing for horror and thriller fans.