George Sluizer's thriller about a man's obsessive search for his girlfriend after her mysterious disappearance during their vacation is often compared to Hitchcock's disappearance thrillers (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes); a more apt comparison would be Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques), with its cold, calculating fatalism and bitter twist ending. The film is most notable for its abrupt shifting of perspective from victim to villain, substituting the suspense concerning the kidnapper's identity for mystery concerning his motive. This shift also betrays a greater fascination with the kidnapper's methodical techniques, dramatized in painstaking detail, than with the supposed protagonist's relatively under-realized search for his girlfriend. The hero's coarse emotional displays are meant to contrast with the kidnapper's meticulous composure, but it's clear that Sluizer's sympathies lie with the heartless criminal-cum-master planner/ project manager/ director, so much so that it undermines the potential doppelganger effect between these two men and their respectively destructive quests for knowledge at all costs. Eventually they meet, and the mystery of the girlfriend's vanishing is revealed, leading to one of the most depressing endings in movie history. Though perhaps an unhappier ending - at least for Sluizer's career - ensued when Sluizer later remade his own film in Hollywood with Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock as the kidnapped girlfriend (natch), Jeff Bridges sporting a German accent, and a revised happy ending that all but sealed its doom with critics that had seen the original.
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Roger Ebert: " One of the most intriguing things about "The Vanishing" is the film's unusual structure, which builds suspense even while it seems to be telling us almost everything we want to know." Notice that even the theatrical poster on the right gives away a key detail as to the girl's disappearance, setting up the first-time viewer with expectations of further details to be filled in as they watch.
From Kim Newman's essay for the Criterion DVD:
It may be that The Vanishing is a one-off: a film so original, so effective, so surprising and so ruthless that it represents a single, perfect coming-together of director, writer, subject, and cast. It delivers a shattering twist ending, but has a depth and lasting creepiness that makes it repay repeat viewings. Hitchcock always argued for suspense over surprise, but The Vanishing delivers both: the first time you see it, the mystery is intriguing and the solution horrible; the second time, when you know what’s coming, it takes on a more tragic, even more horrifying dimension.
James Kendrick at Qnetwork:
Most horror movies generate terror in the viewer by defying rationality. It should come as little surprise that the two canonical novels that laid the groundwork for the modern horror genre - Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula - were both written during the 19th century when Enlightenment ideals of scientific rationality and logical thought were reaching their height with the advent of secular modernism.
Horror is a direct response to just such thinking -- it frightens by giving power to the irrational. The vampire, the werewolf, and other supernatural beings defy the rational by their very existence. Serial killers and slashers defy the rational by murderously negating the value of human life. And mad scientists pervert the very mode of rationalistic thought that made them scientists in the first place. At every step in the horror genre, the rational fails in the face of the horrific, and the monster is often defeated only when its victims become monsters themselves.
George Sluizer's masterful film The Vanishing (Spoorloos), a mystery-thriller with horror overtones, goes in a completely different direction. It doesn't defy rationality, but rather turns rationality itself into an instrument of horror. The film's monster, a seemingly harmless professor of science, does not commit evil acts because of some inherent nature or uncontrollable urge. Rather, he commits them for the worst reason of all: because he can. The Vanishing is perhaps most disturbing in how it depicts the methodical, exacting nature of evil. It is trained and practiced, thought out and rehearsed.
Joel Pearce at DVD Verdict:
While The Vanishing can be enjoyed on a superficial level, viewers that want to dig deeper into what happens throughout the film will be rewarded. While Raymond is obviously both unhealthy and dangerous, many questions arise once we spend some time with Rex three years after the vanishing. He has become so obsessed with discovering what happened to Saskia that he has completely destroyed his new relationship. and is incapable of moving on in other areas of his life. These two portrayals of obsessive behavior are juxtaposed carefully, which complicates the issues of good and evil. For Raymond, the act of abducting someone in the way that he has planned is a largely intellectual pursuit. Without spoiling too many details about the plot, his detailed planning suggests a level of thought and commitment that few people could match. On the other hand, Rex's continual search for the truth has lost any shred of reason by the end of the story, and the lengths that he is willing to go to in order to discover the truth may be just as frightening as Raymond's actions.
Desson Howe of the Washington Post: "Vanishing is refreshingly free of manipulative scenes involving running bath water, jagged-edge cutlery and bunnies in the saucepan."
Hal Hinson for The Washington Post:
It's the clinical detachment of Raymond's plotting that freezes the blood; there's usually some heat, some passion, in a criminal's actions, but Raymond approaches his crime with the intellectual dryness of a mathematician. Though he usually targets attractive young women (he makes several failed attempts before he finds success), sex appears to figure hardly at all in his motives. The absence of an obvious sexual engine driving Raymond's actions is, in fact, one of Sluizer's shrewder directorial gambits; it makes the character seem even more remote and even creepier, especially when he's acting the perfect father with his little girls.
There's a clinicism, too, in Sluizer's methods; he lays out the story -- which screenwriter Tim Krabbe adapted from his own novel -- dispassionately, as if he were dissecting a frog. And yet his style seems supple and not the least bit mechanical. His work is like that of a slightly more laconic, slightly more intellectualized Hitchcock -- Hitchcock in a beret.
David Sanjek at PopMatters:
Having seen the film before, I was curious to see how well it held up, in that I knew the denouement beforehand. The concision of the narrative and the crisp, unfussy cinematography remain taut and commanding, as do the compelling performances of the two male leads. At the same time, there is something unsatisfying about the conclusion. The depth of Raymond's dementia may unsettle our nervous systems, but it does not affect us otherwise, as other thrillers devoted to such characters have done. He is a monster, nothing more and nothing less.
On the other hand, the figure at the center of Claude Chabrol's heart-wrenching 1968 Le Boucher chills us and quickens our sympathies simultaneously. Chabrol makes the criminal's yearning to put aside his homicidal tendencies so harrowing that seeing the film a second or even a third time does not lessen its emotional pull.
Steven Jay Schneider offers a lengthy and engrossing account of the differences between the original version of The Vanishing and the Hollywood remake.
Courtesy of Buena Vista Television, here's footage of Siskel and Ebert's thumbs down review of the remake that left Ebert breathless with disgust.
Gary Tooze at DVD Beaver remarks on the significance of the Criterion DVD issue:
I like to consider this part of the renaissance of Criterion. Their first 23 issues were not taken from HD source, and their next 100 or so, many of which are excellent, did not establish consistency of product (a few clunkers were thrown in both in title and image quality). But from about this issue (#133) onwards I began to buy 'blind'... with confidence that I would most typically get a solid Film/DVD package. I can't recall a total disappointment since.
Jason Anderson for Eye Weekly: "Subtle and unsettling, The Vanishing neatly eschews most portrait-of-a-killer movie clichés while meticulously creating a sense of dread... It remains a remarkably effective psychological thriller and an obvious influence on films as diverse as Breakdown, Joy Ride and With a Friend Like Harry."
David Ng for Images Journal:
Thinking about the movie now, it’s hard not to notice the foreshadowing Sluizer and Krabbe have laid before us. Actually, it’s hard not to notice it while you’re watching the movie. Subtle it is not. Saskia’s egg dream foreshadows the scary tunnel sequence which is a prelude to her rest stop disappearance. Later, Rex has the same dream. If you connect the dots, you can pretty much surmise Rex’s ultimate destination, not to mention Saskia’s, which is not to say that the movie is predictable, but it is cunningly schematic in its construction. By dropping so many clues so early on, Sluizer would seem to be letting the air out of his own tires. He even introduces us to Saskia’s abductor within the movie’s first ten minutes. (He’s the bourgeois Frenchman, bearded but not mustached, who feigns a broken arm at the rest stop.) But the movie works, curiously enough, and is even suspenseful, partly because all the pieces don’t connect right away, leaving us in a state of semi-confusion as people and places slowly and chillingly sort themselves out.
Neil Young: "There are plenty of great psychological thrillers, but very few that also fascinate on the philosophical level – which is maybe why the final twist in Spoorloos resonates so strongly, and for so very long."
Tim Applegate for Kamera.co.uk
Michael Scrutchin for Flipside Movie Emporium: "The Vanishing is a true horror film, with a monster who just might be someone you know."
One voice of dissent, from Appreciating Great Trash:
The Vanishing is probably a fantastically unnerving mystery for someone going in sans expectations. Unfortunately, the film has amassed a hype about it that makes one expect some sort of stroke-causing frightener capable of sending your heart thumping straight out your ass as you grip white-knuckled onto the seat in a futile attempt to keep breathing (seriously, no hyperbole: read the write-ups on the movie and see for yourself). This is, of course, not only too much to ask, but not really descriptive of the movie’s structure at all: the film is much less Audition or The Wicker Man than it is a kind of neo-realist Hitchockian thriller, with not so much a shock ending as an inevitably bleak ending with a muted approach to its icky unpleasantness. There’s also a heavy undertow of nihilistic existentialism, replete with egg imagery (yes, egg imagery), but none of it’s developed past the skimpy vagueness required of Dutch art-cinema. It’s a good movie, but not quite as masterful as its fans posit.
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