The most skillful purveyors of horror and suspense narratives recognize one incontrovertible fact: we fear the banal. The producer Val Lewton transformed the horror film in the 1940s when he abandoned the otherworldly figures like the vampire or the werewolf and replaced them with the terror wrought by the stranger next door. The cycle of films he oversaw from 1942 to 1946, most notably The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1942), showed that simple shadows are more ominous than even the most skillful shock effect. Lewton made audiences who were facing the very real trauma of world war jump in their seats with everyday sounds—a bus backfiring, for example. How minimal the means, yet how devastating the result.
Contemporary cinema is typically less subtle or indirect, especially the horror and suspense genres, which often leave little to the imagination, as if to bypass that faculty altogether. Think of some of the touchstone moments associated with either genre: the chest-buster sequence in Alien (1979) or the unexpected resurrection of Glenn Close’s homicidal Alex in Fatal Attraction (1987). The laugh is all too often on us for gullibly succumbing to trickery of the most elementary kind, quite different from the times when a skillful storyteller reminds us that we have much or even more to fear from the noonday sun that we do the dead of night.
The Vanishing (spoorloos)
(Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands)
George Sluizer’s Dutch-French co-production, The Vanishing is an example of skillful storytelling. An art-house hit in 1988 (and re-made in the U.S. by the same director in 1993, with predictably lamentable results), the picture is a chilling reinterpolation of the plot device Hitchcock used in The Lady Vanishes (1938). A Dutch couple is on holiday in France. Their lively and at times heated banter indicates their relationship to be one of deep commitment, laced with the kind of inevitable fractures any couple might suffer. They pause on their journey, so that Saskia Wagter (Jahanna ter Steege) can purchase some cold drinks at an altogether ordinary service station. All of a sudden, she vanishes, and Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) is overcome by grief, confusion, and guilt. How could he have not seen what happened? Who would elect to harm someone without apparent motive?
Three years pass, and Rex continues to seek out his lost love. Distraught and prone to hair-trigger bouts of anger and despair, Rex has put his life on hold until he resolves what occurred on that fateful day. Sluizer’s interest, however, lies not in the solution of his puzzle, for he has already shown the viewer who committed the crime: a balding, middle-aged family man, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), kidnapped Saskia at the service station after subduing her with chloroform. But while he displays the event, Sluizer withholds from Saskia’s fate. And once Rex learns that Raymond is involved, it becomes clear that the director is concerned with the cat and mouse exchange between the two men, and the explanation the kidnapper eventually offers for his deed.
What becomes immediately apparent is that Raymond is a sociopath. His benign exterior belies an obsession with committing a perfect crime against a seemingly random victim. Little about his banal family life indicates any potential for homicide, let alone kidnapping and torture. Therefore, the tension in The Vanishing lies not in anticipating the solution of Saskia’s (and eventually Rex’s) fate, but in the incompatibility between Raymond’s benign appearance and volatile tendencies. Rex and Raymond meet, and the heartbroken man gives himself over to the killer in order to find out what became of his girlfriend. The discovery of this information and its consequences for Rex constitute the film’s climax, and the most disturbing element of a consistently unsettling narrative.
The Criterion Collection reissue of The Vanishing is yet another of the company’s impeccable presentations of a perfectly preserved print, letterboxed with easily read subtitles. Unlike most of the company’s releases, this one includes no extra scenes or commentaries, only the original trailer. This is too bad, as it would have been interesting to hear Sluizer’s observations, particularly on how the plot line was transformed for the critically and commercially unsuccessful 1993 U.S. remake.
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. A first-time viewer of The Vanishing cannot help but be drawn into the narrative. But few, I imagine, will feel compelled to return to the scene of the crime another time, to watch the life of a beautiful young woman snuffed out in a cruel and unfathomable manner.