Spoorloos (The Vanishing) Reviews

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JonathanHutchings JonathanHutchings
Super Reviewer
February 18, 2013
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.
Daniel Mumby Daniel Mumby
Super Reviewer
½ January 24, 2013
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.
Graham J
Super Reviewer
January 22, 2013
Sluzier directs this thriller with Hitchcockian precision.
flixsterman flixsterman
Super Reviewer
January 11, 2009
Captivating and depressing saga about a man who loses his girlfriend to a sociopathic serial killer. This is a very good film that will stick with you in a very bad way.
Dan S
Super Reviewer
½ September 8, 2010
A brave, original thriller concerning an obsessed man (Gene Bervoets) desperate to discover how his girlfriend (Johanna ter Steege) disappeared three years ago when the two stopped at a local gas station. This is a film that spends ample time developing its characters and establishing a dark, gloomy atmosphere in which to detail its story. It gets mostly everything right, including defying the stereotypical psychopathic character. Instead of sticking to the "loner, physically threatening" type that has been used countless times, director George Sluizer decides to create a new breed of villain, opting to show him as a family man who has no need to be doing what he's doing. The ending definitely has the ability to piss a lot of people off, but I found it to be a breath of fresh air that once again didn't decide to go the cliche route and instead elected to turn even more haunting and dark than I originally perceived.
Cindy I
Super Reviewer
½ June 9, 2007
This film, other than laying out the basic premise, is hard to talk about because so much of it needs to be experienced to be effective. The story is thus -- a young Dutch man named Rex Hofman and his girlfriend Saskia Wagter are on a driving vacation in France. They make a stop for gas and snacks, and when Saskia goes into the store for drinks, she disappears. Rex spends three years searching for her, and finally goes on television pleading for help. The apparent kidnapper contacts Rex and...that's all I can say without spoilers.

It's not really clear which genre this film should go into. Mystery? Yeah. Love story. OK. Psychological study? Yep, that too. There are even some scenes that could be called blackly comic, such as when we see the kidnapper "practicing" the kidnapping -- timing all his steps, forgetting the banter he's going to use, and later when one of the women he approaches turns out to be a teacher of one of his children. She accuses him of picking up women for sex.

One thing I particularly liked was how things don't happen how and when you think it's going to. There are several instances where I went "Oh, what's going to happen now is..." and then I would be completely off-base. Because of that, the tension really ramps up.

There is a certain "timelessness" to the film, in that one is not aware of how much time has passed. In each sequence, somewhere there is a radio broadcasting the play-by-play for the Tour de France. Is it the same day, same week, same year? And there are flashbacks that you aren't aware of until after it's over -- no "doodly-doo, doodly-doo" screen fade to the flashback or close-ups of the flashback subject.

Also, the admittedly sociopathic antagonist was creepily normal. He had a family who adored him, even to throwing him a birthday party at one point. You just know that they would have NEVER suspected he could be responsible for something so heinous. His reasoning for what he did with Saskia -- that he just wanted to see if he could do something completely and utterly evil -- was chilling. Actually, some of the action between Rex and the kidnapper would seem faintly ludicrous if looked at realistically -- what are the chances of it really happening? -- but for the purposes of the film, it seems completely logical.

All the cast was good, but Johanna ter Steege was most memorable. She is beautiful in a girl next door sort of way, and all her emotions and movements seemed completely natural. You're actually concerned when she disappears, and you hope she is found in one piece. When Saskia's fate is finally revealed to Rex, it is a shocker! I had seen this film many years ago, and while I had lost the memory of the rest of the film, that scene tattooed itself onto my brain forever.

I hear there is a remake of this film with Keifer Sutherland, but without revealing anything, it seems to me that this Dutch original is vastly superior. But of course that is a judgment call.
deano deano
Super Reviewer
½ December 12, 2006
This absolutely chilling Dutch film in the story is simple enough than the US remake. With very little violence and no gore, it was able to leave the viewer in a truly depressing state. Some people might call it boring but I found the slow and steady pace to work in favor of the characters, as the acting was top notch. So was the direction of the scenes, which were set up quite nicely. It was interesting to see such attention paid to both the victim and criminal's point of view.
rubystevens rubystevens
Super Reviewer
January 13, 2009
i saw the crap remake years ago but had mostly forgotten it, thankfully. not much to say about this that hasn't been said. it's a really excellent thriller with fantastic suspense right up until the knockout ending. i like how the villain is introduced early and allowed to build character.
arashxak arashxak
Super Reviewer
September 29, 2008
A well-made intense thriller although the main character's obsession is somehow unconvincing
Pierluigi P
Super Reviewer
July 29, 2008
Anguishing psychological thriller with a very believable display of a contained sociopath and his modus operandi.
It is in the vein of the 'my wife vanished and I don't have a clue of her whereabouts' theme displayed in other interesting movies like Frantic or Breakdown.
Everything looks so verisimilar that the agony, uncertainty and eeriness seem to be endless.
Drew S
Super Reviewer
November 15, 2007
There are a few interesting ideas sprinkled throughout The Vanishing; it is a soundly-crafted and even film. Thus, the problem with it isn't a weak link, but merely a lack of power. The movie doesn't have enough for you to get behind, with its threadbare plot and simple characters.

The ending, which is what launched The Vanishing into such prestigious quarters twenty years ago, is still a neat way to bring the movie to a close - but it doesn't salvage the affair completely. The movie simply doesn't accomplish enough to weather the test of time. It is competent, but not outstanding.
William S
Super Reviewer
½ September 27, 2007
A film that will linger in your subconscious long after you think you have forgotten it. An ending so dark and terrifying, it will give you nightmares for ever! Curiosity killed the cat indeed... literally.
PLEASE ignore the remake! Never has the argument against remakes been so thoroughly proved
Ken S
Super Reviewer
½ June 20, 2007
garyX garyX
Super Reviewer
March 7, 2007
Classic psychological horror that disposes of the usual simplistic stereotyping of the villain of the piece, and fleshes out a believable portrait of a sociopath with no concept of right or wrong, and the surprise ending is genuinely creepy. It also spawned a typically dimwitted Hollywood remake by the same director.
Lanning :
Super Reviewer
April 24, 2006
(Spoorloos) Gotta agree with Lemmy C. This is a haunting piece of work which you will not forget--especially the details of the abduction itself. The frustration of the search is something the viewer will actually feel. Donnadieu's portrayal of the absolutely insane yet cool and clinically curious abductor puts the finishing touch on this confirmation of your worst kind of nightmares. Just to throw in a bit of balance to the comments of detractors regarding the American remake, it ain't that bad.
John B
Super Reviewer
April 10, 2013
Far better than the Kiefer Sutherland remark, the original sizzles with a boyfriend following the trail of his girlfriend who went missing three years in the past. The direction is particularly solid.
Joey S
Super Reviewer
½ February 23, 2013
The Vanishing is a subtly creepy and haunting look at a sociopathic man seeking to discover whether he is capable of committing an act of extreme evil without remorse. The film, like its unfeeling antagonist, is very methodical and carefully paced, slowly revealing the specifics behind a mysterious disappearance and the events leading up to it. The antagonist doesn't look or act like a clearly evil or deranged individual; he gives the impression of being just like everyone else. He has a wife and kids, an unremarkable appearance, and is overall very calm and ordinary in appearance. He doesn't stand out in a crowd, and this is what makes the film especially eerie and unnerving. The Vanishing is ultimately a meditation on the nature of evil, and it is not easily forgotten. You're not likely to forget the hauntingly bleak finale anytime soon.
Horrific R. Horrific R.
Super Reviewer
January 5, 2013
I'm left here alone, wanting more... Rex felt this intensely so throughout the film... Damn, this film is something else. Better psychological thriller than "The Butterfly Collector", I certainly think that (and that one's one of my faves!). The slow pace of this film really works well for it. You piece things together as you watch, things click here and there, ideas float around... And it's all very enjoyable. It's a psychological thriller, you need to know this going in to fully enjoy it.
John2223 John2223
Super Reviewer
March 22, 2009
"Spoorloos" is the original version of 'The Vanishing', later made into an inferior Hollywood film with Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock, and Jeff Bridges, is excellent, tense and convincingly cast. This film is dark in tone and absolutely chilling where the pieces of the story slowly come together. It is the kind of movie that leaves you both physically and mentally numb.
Definitely an intelligent movie that has to be seen.
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