Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988)
Critic Consensus: A clinical, maddening descent into the mind of a serial killer and a slowly unraveling hero, culminating with one of the scariest endings of all time.
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as Raymond Lemorne
as Rex Hofman
as Saskia Wagter
as Simone Lemorne
as Belgian Tourist
as Little Girl
as Farmer Laurent
as TV Journalist
as Gisele Marzin
as Lemorne (16 Years)
as Lady "Prisunic"
as Pump Attendant
as Pump Attendant
as English Tourist
as English Tourist
as German Tourist
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Critic Reviews for Spoorloos (The Vanishing)
Sluizer's direction is seamless throughout, effortlessly juggling domesticity and damnation as it ploughs inexorably towards an appaling dénouement.
Mr. Sluizer, whose direction has the spooky precision of nonfiction crime writing and whose matter-of-factness makes the characters seem quite real, builds a disturbing horror story from seemingly modest beginnings.
Director George Sluizer unfolds his story with non-hysterical -- but nonetheless unnerving -- precision. Vanishing is refreshingly free of manipulative scenes involving running bath water, jagged-edge cutlery and bunnies in the saucepan.
A brilliantly crafted intellectual thriller with a spring like a trap. It carries you down with it.
The movie advances in a tantalizing fashion, supplying information obliquely, suggesting as much as it tells, and everything leads up to a climax that is as horrifying as it is probably inevitable.
Audience Reviews for Spoorloos (The Vanishing)
Edgar Allen Poe once said that, without a traceable motive, anyone can commit murder with impunity. The Vanishing instantly made me think about this quote for quite a while. An excellent, methodical and expertly directed film that confidently refuses to be labeled as a one genre, George Suizer's cautionary tale about obsession and how far we'll go to find truth is an art house triumph. This dark, brilliant film has been much-talked about since its release in 1988, and for good reason: only a few films have such immutable power, leaving you with mental images that stay with you long after its conclusion. This film's austere ending is a commentary on the prevalence of heartless evil in our society. Reduced to its simplest expression, there is no joy in nature. Make no mistake, this is an ugly film, but an utterly fascinating one at that.
Rex and Saskia are two young lovers on holiday, alternately loving and fighting as close couples are won't to do. Their flaws are revealed, making them more endearing: during the drive he becomes macho and demanding, while she rebels and becomes petty and shrill. After the fight, they are closer than ever. One cares about these characters, can imagine their lives together for years to come, possibly even getting married. She's earthy and fun-loving, while he is quietly appreciative of her company. Oddly, she presages the forthcoming events by recounting a strange dream about a golden egg. These two seem a perfect match. The sun sets on their short romance when they stop at a rest area and she disappears. He hangs around the rest area for hours, long into the night looking for her and trying to reconstruct her footsteps through the rest area. The sense of desperation and mystery lingers, and it shows in his pained expression. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one can identify with his quiet, desperate longing.
Several years later, Rex is still obsessed with Saskia's disappearance. His romantic partner, realizing that she can never take Saskia's place, walks out on him. Rex appears on talk shows, canvasses neighborhoods with flyers, and revisits their favorite places in an attempt to understand just why Saskia disappeared. This part is important: Rex wants to understand the nature of evil, and in order to successfully get through this film without lying awake all night with the ending forever running in your head, it's important to acknowledge this aspect of his character.
The film cuts to Raymond, the man who kidnapped Saskia: you might have imagined a raving maniac, but instead you see a gentle, kindly older teacher with a wife and son, living in a well-appointed flat and driving a Citroen; he might just as well be Pere Noel on summer holiday. This film is constructed like a crime scene investigation. First we experience the disappearance firsthand, and then we go into the mind and life of Raymond, showing how he coldly planned and carried out the kidnapping with as much emotion as changing the oil in his car. It is this two-part process which slowly builds the powerful suspense in this film. We see how methodical he is in his approach to the planned kidnapping, and, impossibly, we even laugh at him: looking for a victim, he inadvertently makes a pass at a young woman he knows, and she calls him on it, saying that he should be ashamed of himself. It is this twist of fate that drives him to kidnap a young woman from the rest area, where no one is likely to know him. So the fates have brought him Saskia.
Aware of Rex's obsession, Raymond offers to meet him in a public place and show him what happened to Saskia. Suffice it to say that the mystery of Saskia's disappearance is frighteningly revealed at last; listen closely and you can almost hear God laughing in the soundtrack. The ending is so genius that I wouldn't dare spoil it here -- but rest assured, it's one for the ages.
There is nothing beautiful about this film; it is cold, ugly, and unfair -- and I love it.
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.
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