Film Review: The Vanishing (1988)

The moral of the film: Don’t trust a man in a sling and a cast.

When I hear that Stanley Kubrick called a movie one of the most terrifying films he has ever seen and then I see the Rottentomatoes consensus say the ending is one of the most scary of all time, then it is a no-brainer I will spend the $3.99 to rent the film on Amazon. The film I’m talking about is the 1988 Dutch film, Spoorloos, which translates as Traceless or Without a Trace; it’s Americanized name is The Vanishing. Directed and written (Tim Krabbé also recieves a credit for the screenplay) by George Sluizer, the film is an adapation of Krabbé’s novel, The Golden Egg.

Two lovers, Rex Hofman (played by Gene Berrvoets) and Saskia Wagter (played by Johanna ter Steege), are driving from Amsterdam to France for holiday. In the first red herring of a “vanishing,” their vehicle runs out of gas in the middle of a dark tunnel. This scene at the beginning of the film was genuinely unsettling even before the red herring merely because a dark tunnel is its own nightmare! I thought for sure when Rex abandoned her, as Saskia saw it, to go get gas, he would come back and she’d be gone. As it happens, she was still there (just outside of the tunnel with a flashlight).

Then, after kissing and making up, they stop at a popular petrol station to stretch their legs, play frisbee, and bury two coins at the base of a tree as a symbol of their budding love. This is where the second red herring of a “vanishing” occurs. Because at this point, we’ve been introduced to our Ted Bundy-style killer, Raymond Lemorne (played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). I say Ted Bundy-style because he’s pretending to have a sling and cast on his arm to convince women to help him with his trailer. Once they are in his vehicle, his plan is to chloroform them, abduct them and kill them. When the killer sees Saskia at the petrol station, I thought for sure she wouldn’t return to him.

She does. That’s when she brings the frisbee. Then she goes back into the petrol station to retrieve a cold drink and a beer before her and Rex take off. She never comes back. Rex is distraught and yelling for his “wife.” I guess he said wife because it is easier to yell than, “My lover!” or “My friend,” as he comes to later call her.

The film then spends considerable time showing the killer and his process. So, normally I wouldn’t like this, but the killer isn’t Michael Myers or Jason; he’s a family man — a chemistry teacher, with a wife and two daughters. Thus, showing that dichotomy is interesting. This man is truly sick, though. He is working on a house separate from his home and brings his family there where they have a fun time screaming (after seeing spiders) and hearing the resulting echo. That wasn’t merely family hijinks, however. The man used it as an opportunity to test whether anyone could hear their screams. Later, when he picks up his youngest daughter from school, he practices the maneuver required to reach around her, lock the passenger side door, and chloroform her. I said he was sick.

That is much of what the middle portion of the film is: Raymond practicing how long chloroform knocks someone out by testing it on himself, seeing if he can get his blood pressure lowered when he tries to talk a girl into his vehicle, and the aforementioned practicing of the maneuver once in the vehicle.

We then time jump three years. Rex is still obsessed with finding out what happened to Saskia, although he’s tried to move on in some measure by taking on a new girlfriend. His obsession, however, is spurred on by Raymond taunting him with postcards saying he can meet Saskia’s abductor at a cafe in Nîmes. Instead, Raymond uses it as a chance to observe Rex. After Rex makes a public plea on television and calls Raymond intelligent, Raymond takes that as an opportunity to directly confront Rex and proposition him: Come with me to France and I will tell you everything you need to know about Saskia’s vanishing. Rex lashes out and punches and kicks Raymond … and then goes with him. Because he’s obsessed and needs to know! It’s reckless and a tad insane, but well, that is how it goes and as a viewer, you’re hoping it works out.

While driving to the same petrol gas station, Raymond tells Rex about when he first learned he was a sociopath as a young boy. He wanted to jump off a balcony to prove predestination wrong. Similarly, later in life as a father, when he saves a drowning girl in front of his family, he then felt he had to do something evil to counterbalance his daughter thinking of him as a hero, to prove that he was worthy of the honorific. That is it. He didn’t actually have a lust to kill; it was almost as if it was purely academic.

Interestingly, speaking of fate, Raymond’s whole charade with the sling didn’t even help him to kidnap Saskia; he tried to kidnap a different girl, but sneezed at an inopportune time and aborted the abduction. Then Saskia actually initiated conversation with him after noticing his keychain was an “r” for Raymond, a gift from his daughter on his birthday. He improvised with her, saying he was a traveling salesman and had more “r’s” in his car he could give to her. She wanted one for Rex. When she approached his vehicle, she was cautious, but then noticed his family photo on the dashboard. She felt safe. Alas.

As it happens, Rex continues to go through with Raymond’s plan, up to and including taking a sleeping pill because Raymond says Rex has to experience what Saskia experienced. Part of Rex seems to know that includes the possibility of death. It does. Rex wakes up buried alive. The movie finishes with Raymond’s family playing over the ground where Rex and Saskia are buried, with a newspaper blaring the confounding news that both of them are missing.

In a brilliant bit of thematic foreshadowing that I didn’t pick up on until writing this review, Saskia tells Rex as they’re driving at the beginning of the film that she continues to have this recurring dream where she’s drifting through space in a golden egg, and in the most recent dream, another egg with another person appeared and they collided.

Well then. That is exactly what happened. It was almost predetermined, you could say. Fate. (The adapted book’s title is, The Golden Egg, by the way.)

Sluzie’s stylish, suspenseful direction is rather ingenious then, because the suspense unspools backward, then forward, and then backward again, until we get to the climax. I’m not sure I would agree that it is one of the scariest endings of all time, as I’d have to think about it, but it is definitely scary and clever. I mean, being buried alive is awful, and watching as Rex uses a lighter to see what is going on until the lighter blinks out … eek.

My first horror film of the spooky season was a devilishly good time. This Dutch film is like if Hitchcock and Harry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had a baby. There will always be something haunting and unnerving about the sterile, academic-like serial killer. The one who does it as pure sporting. To see if he can rather than out of any real lust for the act itself.

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