The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) – Every October, Criterion likes to celebrate Halloween by serving up a few horror movie releases. However, it’s not like Criterion serves up new editions of Dawn of the Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre during this period. Nope, they continue to focus on obscure and underappreciated examples of world and classic cinema with an intellectual bent. George Sluizer’s masterpiece The Vanishing fits in with that October company policy perfectly. The film is a character driven thriller, one that unfolds with such devastating emotional intensity and boasts such a haunting finale that it feels like a horror movie. There are no squishy effects to make you squirm or a monster made for Halloween costume posturing. Nope, just gripping emotional devastation, gut-wrenching realism, and a final shot so disturbing that you’ll need to sit through the end credits just to gather your bearings and get on with your day. Prepare to buy many matches as soon as this thing is done.
The set up is simple. A happy couple (Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege) are out on a road trip, bickering in an all too common way. Then at a rest stop she disappears and Bervoets has no idea where to find her. The local authorities are all disturbingly disinterested in the disappearance and Bervoets seems to have no hope of ever finding out what happened or even getting someone to care. Then writer/director George Sluizer does something completely unexpected. He not only reveals the identity of the kidnapper to the audience, but starts to follow him as a new protagonist. The man in question is Bernard-Pierre Donnaddieu’s disturbingly detached sociopath. Through flashbacks we see him as a family man who is more than a little bit off. He’s determined to kidnap a woman and do something unthinkable. We see him practice his big plan and even finally meet and kidnap Steege. Flash-forward a few years and Bervoets is still searching for Steege to the point of obsession. Eventually the pair meet, and Donnaddieu uncomfortably admits to the crime, even offering to tell Bervoets exactly what he did to his beloved. The only catch is that in order to find out what happened, he has to experience the crime himself.
The Vanishing is a very unconventional horror film, yet one that’s all the more terrifying for it. There’s no real onscreen violence, especially in comparison to the usual exploits in the genre. The horror is purely situational and relatable. Fear comes from the audience feeling completely enveloped in Bervoets’ hopeless quest and imagining themselves in that position. Or it comes from being forced to see Donnaddieu’s disturbingly calm psychopath and watching him plot his crime completely casually. We see him invite his family out to the country house he’s purchased entirely to enact his most disturbing impulses and cringe as he has his children prove that their screams will go unheard. Sluizer is a talented enough visual stylist who understands the language of suspense and how to employ it, yet it’s when his film is at its least stylized that it’s the most disturbing. It’s in these moments that any pretense of recognizable movie horror disappears and we’re forced to deal with the real thing.
That type of horror movie of course requires naturalistic acting that can fulfill the filmmakers’ ambitions and thankfully, Sluizer got that in spades. With only ten minutes of screen time, Steege creates such a lovable, complex, and believable young woman that her disappearance haunts viewers as much as her onscreen lover. Speaking of him, Beroets is never less than believable in his psychological distress and obsession. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal that pulls you deeply inside Sluizer’s mind games and creep outs whether you want to be there or not. Finally, Donnaddieu’s horrifyingly calm portrayal is probably the single element that makes the movie work. Never once does he mug or visibly attempt to portray some sort of movie monster. He’s merely a boring, accountant type who you’d never think twice about passing on the street, yet with something cold and detached about him that hints at something wrong beneath the surface. That’s just as frightening as any Hannibal Lector tongue wagging because you know it’s closer to the real thing.
Now, no discussion of the movie would be complete without acknowledging the ending that finally reveals Donnaddieu’s plot. Without giving anything away, it’s one of the most unsettling finales of any film in history that would suck just as much air of a theater full of unsuspecting audiences today as it did back in 1988. It’s a stunner of a final twist that like The Wicker Man or Don’t Look Now transforms The Vanishing into a horror movie on the spot. You need only look at the horrible, horrible Hollywood remake that Sluizer made himself to see how important that ending is to the impact and legacy of this film. Up until the end, the Hollywood Vanishing is a pretty faithful adaptation and decent movie in its own right. But screw up that chilling finale that Sluizer envisioned and the remake becomes forgettable at best and a total piece of shit at worst.
As expected, Criterion have given The Vanishing a beautiful restoration the likes of which would be unthinkable were it not for the company. Colors are rich, details are strong, and depth is impressive throughout. This might not be a movie filled with grandiose imagery to show off what only HD is capable of, but since it is a movie that thrives on naturalism and Criterion’s new transfer makes the film feel like watching life through a window and it’s all the more impressive for it. The special feature section is light but welcome. Johanna ter Steege contributes a slight, but fun interview explaining how she was plucked from drama school and shoved into the production, filled with nice anecdotes like how difficult she found working with Donnaddieu. The big bonus feature is a 20 minute interview with George Sluizer including everything you’d want to know about the film from his fraught relationship with the original author’s novel while writing the script, to the instances of autobiography he slipped in and how difficult it was for him to even get the award-winning film screened initially (sadly, there’s no discussion of the remake which is a missed opportunity). The interview is an important document as Sluizer sadly passed a way mere weeks after it was completed, making it the last time he was ever recorded speaking about the film.
It’s hardly an overflowing special feature section, but given the fact that all DVD releases before now have been bare bones (including Criterion’s), it’s hard to complain. The company did give the movie a gorgeous restoration after all and finally released The Vanishing on Blu-ray where it will hopefully reach a new generation of fans. If you’re tired of monster movie horror following Halloween, but still feel like being forced to sleep with the lights on rush out and buy this film immediately. It is one of the most underappreciated horror classics around. (Phil Brown)