Friday, March 1, 2013

Vital Viewing: The Vanishing (1988)

To what lengths would you go to find out what happened to a missing loved one?  This is the question that the excellent Dutch film, The Vanishing (a.k.a. Spoorloos), asks. 

Directed by George Sluize, the film tells the story of Rex (Gene Bervoets), whose desperate search for the woman (Johanna ter Steege) he loves leads him to near-madness as his three year search culminates in one of the most disturbing and nightmarish endings in cinematic history.

Rex and Saskia (ter Steege) are on holiday in France when they stop for gas. Saskia goes into the adjacent convenience store to get them some drinks and never returns.  It's a simple activity that you and I do everyday. Go get a coffee, a paper, a pack of smokes, etc.  Rex waits the obligatory amount of time, perhaps figuring she's hit the restrooms while inside.  But when she doesn't return after several minutes - too many minutes - he heads inside.  Unable to find her anywhere, he begins to panic. Making matters worse is that the store clerk and the station attendant outside both recall seeing her chatting with another man.

Whereas most people would possibly think she'd run off with someone else, Rex is completely secure in his relationship and knows something untoward has happened.  He questions everyone he can see, including the store manager, who explains that the police aren't going to do anything right away. They will assume the couple has been fighting and won't take any interest in it as a missing person crime for at least 24 hours.
Rex spends the night at the station but Saskia.

What makes this film so special is that early on in the film we are introduced to the antagonist.  Raymond  Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) is shown making plans to kidnap a woman. He goes over various scenarios, practices timing things out perfectly, even down to what his pulse will be, how he will secure the woman in the car after stealing her away, and whether or not anyone can hear screams for help.  A fascinating yet frightening look inside the mind of a sociopath, Lemorne is a seemingly devoted husband with two daughters. Yet he buys a house in the country, causing his wife and one of his daughters to think he is having an affair because he is spending so much time there.  It's obvious the country house figures into his devious plan, but we are never really privy to what happened after Lemorne kidnaps Saskia - which is part of the horror of this movie.

The film is told in both flashbacks and real time, giving it an unbalanced feel, which while often annoying and confusing in many films, really works here.  Eventually we do see Lemorne interacting with Saskia inside the convenience store, and we see that all his practice pays off as his kidnapping scheme goes according to plan.

In addition, we see the anguish Rex has been going through when, three years later he is still putting up posters of Saskia's likeness that ask if anyone has seen her.  He has started another relationship with Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), but though she has been patient throughout his endless search, she is reaching the end of her rope, sharing Rex with the ghost of his relationship with Saskia.
Also, perhaps unbelievably over the course of the three years, Rex has been teased by Lemorne, who relishes his petty tortures by sending postcards to Rex asking him to meet with him but then he never shows.

The best part of the film comes when Lemorne, tired of taunting Rex with false hope, shows up out of the blue and tells Rex he will "explain everything" if he just comes with him.  Naturally Rex has second thoughts about going with a man that may have killed his lover - and most certainly is responsible for her disappearance, but the pains of curiosity get the better of him and he gets in Lemorne's car.

To reveal the ending of the film would be a ghastly and unforgivable transgression on my part, so that's all you're getting from me.  Suffice it to say though, that once you've seen this film, you won't soon forget the unnerving ending. 

A brilliant and stunning piece of film making, The Vanishing should be near the top of any discerning horror fan's list of must-sees.  Highly recommended! 
(The 1993 American remake of the same name, however, is not.)

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