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What’s Streaming: The Original ‘The Vanishing’ Still Terrifies, 30 Years Later

‘The Vanishing’ starts with a mysterious disappearance and features  breathtaking twists, and its influence can be found in the work of Denis Villeneuve and recent hits like ‘Searching’

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

The solid box office success of Searching this past weekend can be taken as a sign of several things at once: the importance of good reviews for smaller releases; the continued viability of the now omnipresent, Russian-sponsored desktop aesthetic; and, as John Cho himself implied on Twitter, a ripple effect in the larger box office demographic shift.

It’s also a good excuse to revisit a film that’s part of Searching’s DNA, even if the newer movie doesn’t contain any direct references to it. In truth, it’s hard to watch any thriller that pivots around kidnapping as a plot point without thinking of Dutch director George Sluizer’s brilliant The Vanishing (Spoorloos), which turns 30 this fall and is currently streaming on FilmStruck (it was previously released on DVD by Criterion, a sign of its modern-classic status). Stanley Kubrick called it the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, although maybe he was just flattered by the way Sluizer began his movie with an overhead, bird-of-prey shot of cars on a highway, evoking Jack Torrance’s winding mountain drive to the Overlook Hotel.

As its English-language title suggests, Spoorloos is a chronicle of a disappearance. While biking through France with her boyfriend, Rex (Gene Bervoets), Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) demands that he pledge his everlasting devotion. She’s worried that he’ll abandon her, which is partially due to her impulsive, magnetic personality and partially a pretty good guess based on general male commitment-phobia (a suspicion that forms the story’s satirical subtext). Having hinted that she’s going to be around for the long haul -- whether Rex likes it or not -- Saskia suddenly goes Gone Girl, all but dematerializing, Infinity War–style, in the parking lot of a roadside rest stop. Nobody sees her leave; the police have no leads. Rex stews. Years pass.

Sluizer splits the film’s perspective between Rex, whose desperation to know what happened to his lover throws his life off the rails, and Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who is in a unique position to know the answer. Long before revealing a precise solution to its central mystery, Spoorloos shows Raymond privately role-playing his part in some planned abduction, experimenting with anesthetics, and scoping out women traveling alone in public places. He’s training, and while his regimen is compelling on its own, our observation spawns an even more disturbing enigma than the issue of Saskia’s fate: Why is this bearded, friendly family man determined to commit such a terrible act?

Any list of movie history’s most unsettling antagonists would have to include Raymond, whom the filmmakers conceive as a sociopath hiding in plain sight, both to the people around him and the audience. We’re alerted to his culpability long before Rex even knows that he exists. In most thrillers, the identity of the bad guy is a closely guarded secret, but Spoorloos isn’t trying to fool anybody. “I was not interested in creating a mystery [about] who has done it,” Sluizer explained in an interview. “There is a tension between what happens in the mind … and how you act.” Spoorloos asks us to simultaneously identify with Rex’s tragic, obsessive quest for truth -- the kind of righteous trajectory that John Cho travels in Searching -- and with Raymond’s no-less-burning, and in its way equally dangerous, desire to explain himself, albeit to the one party who would give anything to know.

Rex’s name frames him as a loyal dog, but Spoorloos is a cat-and-mouse game all the way. Considering that the movie is 30 years old, it’s hopefully not too much of a spoiler to say that Raymond, who has observed Rex’s search for Saskia from a safe distance, eventually puts both men in positions to get what they want. From there, Spoorloos takes the typically ridiculous cliche of having the villain elucidate his plan at length -- what Roger Ebert memorably called the Talking Killer Syndrome -- and turns it into a key structural element.

The extended passage where the pair take a drive together and Raymond recounts everything leading up to the “vanishing” is a positively hypnotic example of montage, mesmerizing Rex (and the viewer) through the sheer matter-of-factness of the storytelling. Raymond’s underlying rationale is creepily Nietzschean in origin. “I logically conceived of the most horrible deed I could envision right at that moment,” Raymond says, arguing that such a strategy was the only way to contextualize an earlier heroic act in which he had selflessly saved a drowning child. This is not the banality of evil but a determined personal crusade. What’s devastating in retrospect is how we come to realize that, in light of his own status as a husband and doting father, Raymond ends up remaining true to his word.

Ideally, the horribleness of Raymond’s deed, and the sickly poetic way that screenwriter Tim Krabbe links it to an early scene in which Saskia relates her dream of being trapped in a golden egg (the title of his source novel), is something that you’ll come to cold. And if that’s how you’d prefer it, stop reading and start streaming now. But as Spoorloos’s reputation rests largely on its ending, which has been canonized on various lists of the all-time freakiest horror movie moments, there’s a good chance that you already know what’s coming.

In a way, the end doesn’t matter. At a certain point -- i.e., when Rex willingly takes that drive with Raymond instead of going to the police, forfeiting justice for knowledge -- Rex subconsciously opts to get exactly what’s coming to him. It’s not as if Sluizer leaves the likely details of Saskia’s fate vague: It’s hinted at a half dozen times before Raymond confirms it for good. So as Gothic as Spoorloos gets, it’s not exactly shocking. What’s so upsetting about Rex’s moment of awakening in the brilliantly filmed climax (which Denis Villeneuve ripped off in Prisoners, for the record) is not that it’s a surprise but that it feels so inevitable. In a nice mix of literal and figurative meaning, Rex’s plight is inescapable. He wanted closure, and he gets it -- and so does the audience, whose own yearning is implicated in his fate.

Spoorloos’s bleakness is its trump card, which is why it’s so bizarre -- bordering on deranged -- that Sluizer oversaw an American remake that substituted a happy ending in its place. 1993’s The Vanishing goes on the short list of the most superfluous reduxes of all time: Everything about it that’s good is borrowed scene for scene from the original; everything bad directly tarnishes the earlier film’s legacy because Sluizer himself is at the helm.

It’s also on the short list of movies in which Jeff Bridges is bad: Cast as Raymond, he affects a distracting unspecified-European accent (maybe he’s supposed to be Dutch?) and overplays the same everyday menace that Donnadieu effortlessly embodied. The truly catastrophic choice, though, is to use the role of the hero’s (Kiefer Sutherland) new girlfriend (Nancy Travis) to reconfigure not only the plot but the meaning of the material. In Spoorloos, Rex’s obsession makes it impossible for him to start over, and the only person who can “save” him is Raymond, by putting him out of his misery. In The Vanishing, Travis’s character is there to actually save Sutherland, undoing the story’s beautiful structure as well as its disturbing implication that the impulse to hold on to things that are gone can be fatal.

I’ve always liked to think that Sluizer’s reasons for directing the remake were more than mercenary. Maybe that they mirrored Raymond’s warped but relatable rhetoric. Having created something essentially perfect, the director had to do the most horrible deed he could envision at that moment, which was to deface his masterpiece -- and, in the bargain, guarantee its classic status. The Vanishing leaves no trace; as long as people watch movies specifically to give themselves the creeps, Spoorloos isn’t going anywhere.