Home Video Hovel: The Vanishing, by Josh Long
George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing is a film that almost fell through the cracks of film history. After its initial release and middling response, the film was chosen by sheer luck to fill a slot at an Australian Film Festival. It was that festival that brought international acclaim to The Vanishing, and found it a champion in Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick personally telephoned Sluizer after a repeat viewing just to discuss the film, artist to artist. He called it the most frightening film he’d ever seen (to which Sluizer replied “have you ever seen The Shining?”). This week the Criterion Collection releases their Blu-ray of the film, upgrading their original 2001 DVD release.
The Vanishing (also known by the Dutch title Spoorloos) is a film where the chilling, shocking story sneaks up on you. It starts very simply, two young lovers on a road trip. They laugh, they bicker, they seem like any normal couple – easy audience surrogates. There is a first hint at the film’s direction when their car runs out of gas in a tunnel. The young man, Rex (Gene Bervoets), leaves his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) alone while he goes for gas. When he returns, she’s not at the car. We think perhaps this is the Vanishing of the film’s title, but then Rex finds Saskia, safe, at the end of the tunnel. Their trip continues, they make up and just by the time we’ve forgotten about the portentous moment in the tunnel, Saskia disappears. In broad daylight, and at a crowded gas station.
Then the film switches gears, and we begin to see the other end of the story. We meet affable professor Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a mild-mannered family man. But it soon becomes clear that there’s something devious under his squeaky-clean surface. In a frighteningly matter of fact way, he plans an abduction. The right amount of chloroform to use, the time he’ll be able to keep someone unconscious, the way to lure someone into his car. He plans this shockingly evil-deed with the normalcy of a scientist conducting experiments. Eventually the film will bring Rex and Lemorne together – Lemorne because of his disturbed mental state, and Rex out of his desperation to know what happened to Saskia. Their meeting leads to a conclusion as terrifying as it is unexpected.
The “horror” here isn’t in the traditional sense. There are no creatures, gore, or popcorn-on-the-ceiling moments. Everything is under the surface. Lemorne is a monster, to be sure, but he doesn’t lurk in dark places. He’s in plain sight, and everything about him seems normal to the casual observer. That’s what makes him so much more frightening – the idea that a man like this could be anywhere at any time. That he could make his plans without remorse, viewing right and wrong as nothing more than labels without understanding what they mean. Then again, the film also keeps us guessing until the end – what exactly did happen to Saskia? Did the moral implications finally dawn on Lemorne? Did he even truly abduct her? Sluizer will eventually give us the answers we want, but slowly and methodically. He waits until the moments when reveals will have their strongest impact.
Sluizer’s film is not showy. He doesn’t use his direction to accent what’s coming or to create a sense of dread visually or sonically. He prefers to let the story and the performances speak for themselves. In such a film, it’s vitally important to have strong actors. Donnadieu’s portrayal of Lemorne is everything it should be. He is charming, reasonable, even a little geeky. But there’s always a sense that something’s off, that there’s a piece missing. A great deal of the film is spent watching his meticulous planning for an abduction, but he treats it as normally as if he were mowing the lawn. Johanna ter Steege’s performance as Saskia is another that stands out (her film debut, in fact). Though she has very little screen time, she casts an indelible presence on the film. Her spirited innocence is the foil to Lemorne’s villainy.
The Criterion Blu-ray features upgrades from their admittedly sparse DVD release. Included are the film’s trailer, along with new interviews with Sluizer and Ter Steege, speaking about their experience in making the film, influences behind it, and the critical reception (Sluizer tells the story of his interaction with Kubrick mentioned above). Also included is a short essay printed in the insert by Variety film critic Scott Foundas. The transfer has enhanced the colors in the film, and the sound is greatly improved (just compare it to the sound in the trailer). There are some moments throughout the film where there’s a lot of visual noise, especially where there’s a lot of black background. I’m unsure what the reason for this is, and it isn’t distracting, but I did notice.
Also, a quick word about the Criterion Collection. Most BP readers are already very familiar with them and the work they do, but I’d like to very quickly talk about what a great service they’re doing to these films. This Blu-ray isn’t packed with special features, but the features that are included really garner a love for the film. Good special features should make you want to watch the film again, even if you’ve just finished it, and that’s exactly what these ones do. These are releases made by film lovers, for film lovers. Then there is the fantastic packaging and design, down to the main menu images. For this film, as usual, the images mean nothing to a new viewer, but have a deep resonance for anyone who’s seen the film.
The Vanishing is definitely one to see if you haven’t before, and Criterion does their usual excellent job in the release. A good atypical horror film for October, and also a poignant release date, as George Sluizer passed away less than a month ago. Though much of his other filmography may not stand out, we can be glad to have such an excellent release of his masterpiece.