At a recent family barbecue, I overhead my step-dad talking to some of my second cousins about scary movies. The second cousins named some traditional horror films, but my step-dad said "The scariest movie I have ever seen is "The Vanishing"". This made me think of the film and sent a chill down my spine as my mind replayed images from the film. A few weeks later, I was flipping through channels and Fox Movie Channel was playing the American version of "The Vanishing", featuring Jeff Bridges, Keifer Sutherland, Nancy Travis and Sandra Bullock in an early, smaller, supporting role. I watched the ending of the American film and realized that it was a prime example of what can go wrong when foreign films are remade at an American studio. The original film's ending was changed robbing the Sutherland - Bridges version of any lasting impact. Strangely, both versions were directed by the same man, George Sluizer.
Recently, I decided to watch the original again. The Criterion Collection has released a DVD of the 1988 film. "The Vanishing" is a terrific example of how to make a suspenseful, great film, paying homage to the master, Hitchcock.
Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), a young Dutch couple, are taking a road trip through France. Their car runs out of gas in a dark tunnel and Rex leaves a panicking Saskia behind to go and get some gas. Upon his return, he promises Saskia he will never abandon her again. Later, stopping at a rest stop, Saskia goes inside to get some drinks and never comes back. After a while, Rex realizes she is gone and begins to search frantically for her. But she is nowhere to be found. Over the next three years, he continues the search; he posts posters all over France, goes on news programs, revisits the rest stop. His obsession eventually leads to the end of his current relationship with Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus). During this time, he attracts the attention of Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a family man who owns a house in a remote part of the French countryside. Raymond, the man who abducted Saskia, becomes intrigued by Rex's obsessive quest to find his girlfriend.
"The Vanishing" is a terrifying, frightening film but not because of men wearing masks wielding chainsaws, ghosts, or other fake monsters. It is terrifying because the monsters are real people, people who could be living next door.
The film begins with Rex and Saskia having a fight. After they make up, he pledges that he will never leave her again. Apparently, this means a lot more to the Dutch than to your typical American. He spends the next three years of his life searching for her. Yes, he moves on with his life, a bit, but there is always the thought of that pledge haunting him.
All of his activity brings him to the attention of Raymond. Director Sluizer brilliantly depicts this character in a way that makes him very real. We spend time with him, his wife and his two daughters, on vacation at a broken down little farm house they own in the French countryside. One of the daughters opens a drawer containing bugs. She screams. Raymond, his wife and their other daughter join in the fun, making as much noise as possible. Raymond takes one of his daughters with him to a local fair. Raymond seems like a normal guy, someone you might work with in your office. But one day, he and a co-worker walk by one of Rex's posters. Raymond comments "Not again" and we begin to realize that perhaps Raymond is not just an innocent bystander.
Sluizer shows us all of the secrets in Raymond's character - he is the man who abducted Saskia - so this doesn't add suspense but it does add to the horror. We quickly realize that two events described above - the family screaming for fun and the trip to a local fair - are part of Raymond's sick attempts to become a better sociopath. He is always trying to figure out new, effective, streamlined ways to abduct his next victim. For instance, he runs into a neighbor and asks if the screaming and the noise his family made bothered him. The neighbor didn't hear a thing. As Raymond drives away, a slight smile creeps across his lips.
The suspense comes when Rex and Raymond actually meet face to face. Raymond can't resist telling Rex that he is the person who abducted Saskia. He promises to let Rex learn everything that happened to his girlfriend, but he has to experience it as she did. At this point, Rex is so obsessed that he goes along with it, driving with the stranger from his home in Holland back to France, through the rest stop where everything started, to...
Will he finally learn what actually happened to Saskia? Therein lies the horror.
The Americanized "Vanishing", featuring Bridges, Sutherland, Travis and Bullock is an OK film, to a point. Sluizer was lured to Hollywood based on the critical and financial success of his film. Shockingly, instead of letting him become a new artistic force in Hollywood, they asked him to remake the same film, but to change the settings and the ending. They changed the ending! My God. Why?!?!? The ending is the best part of the entire film. The ending is where all of the horror and suspense pays off, etching images indelibly into your brain.
Rent the original. Or if you have already seen it, and love it, buy the Criterion version