Take Two #8: The Vanishing (1988) & The Vanishing (1993)

If the remake stinks, that’s only because it removes the moody pacing and reveals the essential silliness under the former’s classy Euro-glaze.

The Vanishing

Embarrassed that I’d somehow done seven of these columns without yet covering either a crude American remake of a European film or a single filmmaker’s own reimagining of his own material, I couldn’t resist the unsettling pull of The Vanishing, George Sluizer’s infamous 1993 do-over of his 1988 sleeper. This thing is like the Ishtar of artless Hollywood translations, a disdainful flop described variously as “garish, clunky,” “tedious,” “an insult to the intelligence,” and “a case study in how Hollywood can make a complete mess out of what was previously a marvelous film.” What true movie fan could possibly resist?

The 1993 Vanishing is silly and woefully over-acted movie, but the rumors of its unique terribleness stem from critics who hold the original in higher regard than I can muster. The 1988 film is a relatively early and clever entry in the “Aren’t serial killers fascinating?” genre, which has a storied history (M, Psycho, Peeping Tom, Cape Fear) but reached a schlocky nadir in the ’90s. Perhaps because of the media circuses surrounding the Gacy and Dahmer crimes and trials, or The Silence of the Lambs’s unexpected Oscar prestige, you couldn’t swing a body bag during the decade without hitting a Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider, The Bone Collector, Copycat, Diary of a Serial Killer, or Postmortem. But beyond its low-impact, distinctly psychological style, the original Vanishing is pretty much of a piece with this moment. It’s a one-trick film, and shock endings are the lowest rung of film tricks besides. If the remake stinks, that’s only because it removes the moody pacing and reveals the essential silliness under the former’s classy Euro-glaze.

In both cases, a young woman (Johanna ter Steege and Sandra Bullock) disappears from a rest stop, and her boyfriend (Gene Bervoets and Kiefer Sutherland) spends the next three years obsessively trying to find out what happened to her—not, as is made clear, trying to find her. This distinction is much more forceful in Danish version, where “Rex,” while unable to think of much else, is still a functional human being. Sutherland’s “Jeff,” however, is a broken man; he loses his job, tries in vain to hide his obsession from a new girlfriend (Nancy Travis, in a role that was much smaller in the original), barely sleeps, and worst of all, grows a stringy mourning mullet.

We also meet the killer (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and Jeff Bridges), who spends his free time practicing a crude scheme to seduce a random woman into his car and drug her. In both films, Sluizer shows this man hard at work, perfecting his scheme through a painstaking process of Edison-like experiments and improvements. The director’s interest, if not exactly his sympathy, is certainly focused on this character, who manages to maintain a normal life as a professor, husband and father. Bridges’s psychopath is more convincing as such, despite his distracting, Peter Lorre-ish inflections, but neither character makes much sense. Why would this ostensibly warm man, clearly capable of healthy family relationships, go at this insane plan in the first place? Donnadieu’s killer explains that he once jumped in a river to save a drowning girl, which greatly impressed his daughter but left him with an inexplicable existential crisis:

“My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought her admiration wasn’t worth anything unless I could prove myself incapable of doing anything evil.”

So he takes Rex/Jeff’s girl from the rest stop, and puts her through an experience crueler than death. This kind of warmed-over Nietzschean gobbledygook is a hallmark of the “Aren’t serial killers fascinating?” canon, which theorizes that all villains are a cross between Jack the Ripper and Goldfinger, and quite likely leading a calm suburban life when not slaughtering beautiful innocents. Has literally anyone in history has ever thought this way?

The killer confronts Rex/Jeff, and offers to explain everything to him under the ludicrous condition that the long-suffering man undergo the exact same experience that his lady did. In both cases, the men consent to be drugged, and awake to a harrowing reality out of Poe. Here’s where the European version ends, cruelly but inevitably, while the American version offers the villain his comeuppance and rescues Jeff from near-death. Imagine if Hannibal Lecter bid Clarice Starling adieu from a payphone, then turned around and got whomped in the face with a shovel.

But even so, I reject the notion that the original film was somehow more intelligent. It all builds to that climactic shot, which has its own overdone thematic logic (spoiler: Rex literally digs his own grave through an unhealthy obsession—get it?!?!?), but which nevertheless doesn’t have any particular point other than “Don’t drink poisoned coffee when a sadistic monster offers it to you.” Duly noted!

The Vanishing is sleek and handsome, and I particularly admired how Sluizer builds real suspense and unease without ever showing blood or violence—restraint he jettisoned completely in the American version. With its long takes and plaintive tone, the Danish film might be charitably compared to Antonioni’s work. But that’s a little more highfalutin than the material deserves. It’s a serial-killer movie, a fact about which the 1993 film is more honest and thus less interesting. Your choice is between the minimally clever, artfully constructed movie and an obvious and dull one. Not exactly a case of paving over paradise.

The fascinating question is why Sluizer assisted in the dumbing-down. Perhaps he couldn’t resist the Hollywood paycheck. Perhaps, as with Michael Haneke’s deplorable Funny Games remake, he figured that if L.A. was going to beat his film to death, he wanted to be guy holding its arms back. Whatever the case, the high regard for his original movie, a relatively early Criterion selection, speaks to how excited critics can get when a pulpy genre piece is made with even a modicum of intelligence and taste.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

John Lingan

John Lingan has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and many other places. Often about music, but not always.

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