Into Thin Air: The Vanishing (1988)

VANISHING, THE (1988)

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Years ago, I watched a made-for-television movie starring Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman called Dying Room Only (1973). It was written by a personal favorite of mine, Richard Matheson, and told the story of a couple on a road trip stopping off at a diner to get a bite to eat and take a rest. While Leachman sips her coffee, husband Coleman goes to the restroom and never comes back. I was fascinated and gripped until the climax, when the movie reveals what happened. I won’t spoil it for you, but when I saw The Vanishing (1988) years later, based on the book The Golden Egg, I thought two things: One, did the book’s writer watch Dying Room Only and two, I’m glad he fixed the ending.

The Vanishing begins with Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) on a road trip from Amsterdam to France for a vacation. She’s just recently had a nightmare about being trapped in a golden egg, unable to escape. It’s a nightmare she’s had before but this time there was another golden egg with someone else, and they were about to collide. Rex doesn’t pay much attention to the dream or what it means and happily keeps driving. That comes to an end when they run out of gas in a tunnel, despite Saskia repeatedly telling Rex to stop for gas along the way. When he leaves her to go get gas, she screams for him but he keeps walking. He returns with a container of gas some time later and discovers she is no longer in the car. Instead, she walked ahead and he meets up with her though she won’t speak to him. Finally, she relents, forgives him and they pull into a rest stop to fill up and get some drinks. She makes him promise never to abandon her again. Meanwhile, another man we soon learn is named Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), is shown sitting in his car experimenting with a fake arm cast and chloroform. Surely, this isn’t a good sign.

Saskia tells Rex she will be driving from now on but leaves him the keys and heads off to get something to drink for the both of them. She never returns. Rex waits for a few minutes, then a few more, and finally goes into the rest stop calling for her. He checks the restrooms, the shop, the gas pumps. Saskia is nowhere to be found. He and Saskia had been snapping photos of each other with a Polaroid and he shows her picture around. A couple of employees saw her and one of them, the gas attendant, says it was with another man. Was Saskia getting back at him for abandoning her?

VANISHING, THE (1988)

We see the man with the fake cast go home but it looks a little different. It seems to be in the immediate past and despite having a wife and two daughters, he appears to be rehearsing how to abduct someone. He performs the process of getting someone into his car in secret and knocking them out. He even rehearses with his own daughter when he picks her up, pulling her in quickly and locking her door. “Why’d you do that?” she asks to which he replies that a woman recently fell out of a car and died because her door wasn’t locked. Three years later, we see him again, looking at a poster for the missing Saskia and wondering why this Rex character doesn’t just give up the search.

But Rex can’t give up the search because until he has some kind of resolution as to what happened to her, he will have no peace. His current girlfriend is clearly tired of him going on and on about her and his obsession with locating her continues to grow, even after three years. That’s when Raymond starts sending him notes to meet him and tell him what happened to Saskia.

I’ll stop there so as not to reveal the outcome, but suffice it to say, it is a deeply cynical and dark outcome, one that seems inexplicable to the outsider looking in but inevitable to Rex trapped inside his own golden egg.

The Tim Krabbe novella the film was based on is called The Golden Egg and it’s probably for the best that they renamed the movie, lest Willy Wonka fans mistakenly think Veruca Salt suddenly got her own stand alone movie. The new name was Spoorloos which translates to “traceless” and the opening credits show the first two “o’s” like a pair of binoculars searching in vain. Indeed, Saskia does vanish without a trace and it is only at the end that we finally understand what happened. Worse yet, we see how it was all so opportunistically driven by chance it almost seems like it was Saskia’s destiny. Rex too fulfills a destiny, but not by chance. Rex fulfills it by an act of free will, one so terrible it can only be chalked up to an obsession so passionate that no price is too high to discover the truth.

VANISHING, THE (1988)

George Sluizer directed The Vanishing as well as its American remake five years later. It’s funny. The original has cheesy 1980s synthesizer music for its score. It stars actors who don’t have the same star power as someone like Jeff Bridges, who is in the remake. It doesn’t contain much in the way of amazing sets (most of it takes place outside or in public places), grand design or opulent cinematography. And yet it so outshines the remake that the 1993 version becomes its own master class in how to screw up a story that was told right the first time. It also falls into the same trap as Dying Room Only mentioned above, giving the audience a prosaic, by the book ending, in which everyone lives happily ever after, except the bad guy. The 1988 version takes a darker approach and, as a result, has a devastating impact. And if Sluizer never made another blockbuster thriller, it doesn’t matter because in 1988, he made one of the greats. If you’re looking for a thriller combined with a coldly cynical examination of evil, skip the remake now and forever and watch the original instead. The Vanishing, from 1988, is one of the best, and darkest, thrillers you’ll ever see.

Greg Ferrara

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1 Response Into Thin Air: The Vanishing (1988)
Posted By Arthur : June 23, 2017 1:45 pm

I saw the film as deeply philosophical.

“. . .we see how it was all so opportunistically driven by chance it almost seems like it was Saskia’s destiny. Rex too fulfills a destiny, but not by chance. Rex fulfills it by an act of free will. . .”

So much for the hero. Now let’s turn to the villain. He freely chooses evil. Or was he too fated to do so?

We are all sane, aren’t we? We are not irrational. There is a reason for everything we do. But if there is a reason, a rationale, are we freely choosing?

The villain set out to test that hypothesis. Was he mad or acting freely?

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