The Vanishing (Criterion)


The best horror films are not the ones with the most blood, gore, and violence. So commonplace has carnage become, it simply doesn’t shock or offend. The ratings system seems to be a pointless form of advertising—the bloodier, the better. Yet reality, it is often much, much harsher. Just when you think you’ve heard the most tragic, depraved action, along comes some act that makes it pale in comparison. Furthermore, implied violence can be much more horrific than the act itself. Witness The Hunger Games; the scene at the start of the games, where most of the children are killed, is one of the most disturbing scenes in recent memory. You know exactly what happened to the smaller children, even though you never actually see it.

Consider, then, the masterwork of recently deceased Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer. Spoorloos, (The Vanishing, as it is known in English), released in 1988, is a psychological horror film of the best kind. There’s nothing brutal about it; there’s no blood, the one act of violence lasts less than a minute, and it ends with absolutely no resolution. Like other psychological horror films like The Sixth Sense and Psycho, it ends in such a way that the viewer cannot forget, and though the surprise ending will never have the same impact, it will send the viewer back time and time again to try and fully grasp the nuances of the story.

The film entails a young Dutch couple, Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege), who are on holiday in France. After an afternoon in the park, Saskia visits a nearby convenience store, and is never seen again. We are also introduced to Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a forgettable sort of normal, everyday person, a science teacher with a flare for obsessive statistical logic, a hapless loser whose actions are hampered by a transparent obviousness. After her disappearance, Hofman obsessively tries to answer the question of what happened to his love, spending years and tons of money on a cold case. Until, one day, Lemorne meets Hofman.

One can’t really go further than that in explaining The Vanishing, lest one ruin it. Plot-wise, it’s a very slow burn, in no hurry to reveal itself, a tedium that only adds to the film’s intensity. It also doesn’t hurt that Donnadieu is a master of emotion, and the relatively new actors Bervoets and Ter Steege have a charming naiveté that makes their characters quite believable. So banal yet so horrifying was the film, it caused Stanley Kubrick to declare it the scariest film he had ever seen; he loved Ter Steege’s acting so much, he cast her as the lead role in his unrealized Holocaust film, The Aryan Papers.

As brilliant as the film is, Sluizer had a hard time getting it released; happenstance that had him submit it at the last minute to a film festival in Australia gave it the push it needed, and it reaped international critical acclaim, awards, and controversy, as it was rejected for Academy consideration as it contained too much French for a Dutch film. Furthermore, it gave Sluizer a platform for consideration as a serious filmmaker.

Unfortunately, he would never quite reached the heights of The Vanishing. In 1993, he would release a remake The Vanishing for an American audience; it was terrible, to put it nicely. Sluizer’s most widely known work after The Vanishing is Dark Blood, most notable for being the final film of River Phoenix, who died towards the end of the principal filming. It would languish in the vaults for nineteen years, when Sluizer completed and released it in 2012.

Even if he had never made another film after The Vanishing, Sluizer would go down in cinematic history as the creator of one of the most disturbing films of the twentieth century—and he didn’t have to use a bucket of fake blood to do so.

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