Although there are no monsters nor is a drop of blood shed, the original version of The Vanishing remains one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. It is relentlessly terrifying in a way that few films are. It leaves us with two questions, really, the first being what would we do if a loved one vanished, in the middle of a crowded place, seemingly into thin air? The other is: can true evil exist in polite society? The film, in its own frightening way, has its own answers.
The film opens with two young Dutch lovers on holiday in France; Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege). They are happy and giddy with each other, but there is also a bit of tension between the two of them. Since the film is called The Vanishing, we can assume that something bad may happen. There is car trouble, and they end up stuck in the middle of a dark tunnel. Rex decides to go back and get gas. Saskia begs to go with him. He refuses, and leaves her by the car.
We have seen this movie before. We know what will happen. What we know will happen does not happen, and Rex returns to the car to find Saskia missing. In probably the film’s single most recognizable shot, she is waiting at the light at the end of the tunnel, flashlight in hand. They go on their journey.
They stop at a gas station that is bustling with customers (they are vacationing during the height of the Tour De France, and that race acts as background during the first act of the film). Saskia goes in to use the restroom, and Rex waits. She returns. They have rest in the grass, embrace, apologize for the tunnel and seem to be more in love than ever before. Then Saskia goes back into the gas station to get some drinks, and Rex waits.
He waits, and waits. Gene Bervoets plays these scenes with an increasingly frantic energy, as the severity of the situation dawns on him. The movie is audacious, disturbing and decidedly un-Hollywood in the presentation of this story. All of the cliches we expect in this kind of film are ignored, and in its place, we have one of the finest psychological horror films ever made.
One of the key ingredients to the film’s success is the film’s third lead: Raymond, played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. Raymond is a mild-mannered family man, content with his life and his successful position. There are dark undercurrents, though, to Raymond’s personality, as we soon will see.
The Vanishing is a film that works better the less you know about it, and I’ll allow you the unique pleasures this film has to offer. As I’ve said, this film goes places that few movies care to go, and has a macabre logic to its final act. It was directed by George Sluizer, who also directed the Hollywood remake starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland (unseen by me). Sluizer, who passed away last month, gives this film a kind of fiendish perfection. It is bold, harrowing, extremely effective in its execution and features an astonishingly evil villain. The Vanishing remains one of the finest horror films of the last thirty years.
The Vanishing. 1988. Dir. George Sluizer. With Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus, Bernadette Le Saché. Written by Tim Krabbé and George Sluizer; based upon the novel, The Golden Egg, by Tim Krabbé. Cinematography by Toni Kuhn. Netherlands/ France.