Horror Movies

THE VANISHING. One of the most terrifying films in the history of cinema

The Vanishing by George Sluizer is considered one of the most terrifying films in the history of cinema.

Krzysztof Walecki

6 November 2023

THE VANISHING. One of the most terrifying films in the history of cinema

Even Stanley Kubrick himself was so impressed with this Dutch thriller that he asked Sluizer to watch his film and analyze it scene by scene. Not coincidentally, British horror cinema expert Jonathan Rigby, in his book Studies in Terror, instead of focusing on selected scenes, trivia, and the ways in which the creator instills horror in the audience (most of the positions described in this lexicon are based on a similar pattern), practically presents the entire plot of The Vanishing, from beginning to end, as if the power of this film already lay in its subject matter and its development.

For the two young Dutch lovers in their twenties, Rex and Saskia (Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege), a vacation to a cottage in the French countryside turns into a tragedy. Along the way, while stopping at a gas station, Saskia disappears without a trace (hence The Vanishing). Rex makes futile attempts to find any leads or witnesses, but it yields no results. Over the next three years, he dedicates himself to the search, putting up posters, appealing on television, and even fulfilling the wishes of anonymous individuals who claim to know something about Saskia. Then comes the day when the real kidnapper reveals himself. For the viewer, the kidnapper’s identity is not a surprise. From the beginning, we know who is behind the crime, but we don’t know the motives or the details. Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) appears to be a calm, rational chemistry teacher, a loving father, and husband. However, this doesn’t stop him from thinking of himself as someone who can commit the most heinous acts.

the vanishing

Sluizer directs The Vanishing in a very economical, even unpretentious way, emphasizing realism and remarkable stylistic restraint. Simultaneously, he frames individual scenes to contain maximum information, even if it’s not immediately apparent, often focusing more on the background than the foreground. This approach is justified by the narrative, which relies on numerous flashbacks and two different perspectives. On one hand, there’s Rex’s perspective, a desperate man consumed by an obsession to uncover the truth about Saskia’s disappearance, driven by strong emotions and perhaps even guilt. On the other hand, there’s Lemorne, who describes himself as a sociopath, devoid of scruples, cold, precise, and hating randomness. A glimpse into the lives of both men reveals not only the devastating consequences of the titular disappearance for the life of the first but also the surprising lack of any repercussions for the perpetrator. It’s not about legal or existential consequences but rather the mental ones, as if the crime never had any significance.

And yet, when you delve into Lemorne’s story, it becomes clear how determined he was to carry out his plan. The Vanishing brilliantly allows us to identify with both the perpetrator and the victim, showing the complexity of their relationship, often driven by the characters’ own will. This applies to both men and Saskia, who, before her disappearance, tells Rex about a dream that haunted her the previous night. Trapped in a golden egg, she raced through space, in darkness, with no escape or death. The only salvation was the second golden egg – if they collided, the nightmare would end. “But the universe is so vast,” Tim Krabbé adds in the literary original, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. It’s hard to find a more prophetic dream.

the vanishing

So, The Vanishing is not just a thriller about a deranged mind, the way it brings its criminal plan to life, and the emerging obsession that persists until it finds its own fulfillment; it’s also a bitterly ironic tale about the unpredictability of fate, which mocks the characters. Just as Lemorne believes in the power of his own mind, the precision of his plan, and the sheer intent to do the worst things (I deliberately avoid using the term “evil” because this character doesn’t consider his act from an ethical perspective, and the film itself rarely employs that category), he cannot deny that he is also dependent on chance. This generates several amusing moments when the weaknesses of his plan come to the surface, such as when a potential victim turns out to be his daughter’s coach, or when the man changes his environment to something more anonymous, relocating from the city to a gas station by the highway. However, the same helplessness of fate determines the success of the crime; tracing the exact course of Saskia’s disappearance reveals the inadequacy of Lemorne’s plan, the need for improvisation, and a strange, even terrifying belief that the event unfolded according to a preordained script. It’s not so much that chance aided its realization, but that all the characters in the drama helped chance.

One could easily label The Vanishing as a horror, as it presents a situation that seems logical only on the surface, while in reality, it defies our understanding of the principles that govern the world. The nightmare that the three characters experience is shocking in its randomness and extraordinary cruelty, especially when we see the moments where it was possible to escape from Lemorne’s twisted fantasy. The terror arises from the ordinariness of the situation, the banality of the perpetrator, a man curious about his own limits and therefore incredibly dangerous. There’s nothing extraordinary, fascinating, or alluring about him; it’s only an attempt to prove to oneself that one is capable of committing the most heinous act.

the vanishing

Unfortunately, the director forgot about that banality when making the American remake five years later. Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland, far from being ordinary, lacked the power and understanding of the original’s ending, which was the main reason for the total failure of the Hollywood version. In the Dutch film, the ending is striking in its suddenness but also a certain inevitability of the conclusion. It makes everything come together into a coherent whole because it’s challenging to imagine another resolution for this story. However, this doesn’t mean that we accept it. Watching the final minutes, we see the perfidy of Lemorne’s plan and the extent of Rex’s obsession, but we clearly distance ourselves from them. But it’s too late. Sluizer closes us, the viewers, in a golden egg and releases us into space, without any chance of rescue. Few films have an equally shocking ending.