The Vanishing is unique to me in that I could easily label it as the scariest movie I’ve ever seen as well as one of my all-time favorite movies. I’ve been wanting to watch it with Chris for so long, and over the weekend I finally bought the Criterion Collection DVD, which we watched almost immediately after I got it. This was maybe my 3rd or 4th time seeing it, and for being such a suspenseful movie, it really does get better with age.
The Vanishing is not about who kidnapped Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), because the movie tells us well within the first act that the kidnapper is Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). The movie has more than one timeline going, showing us Saskia and Rex (Gene Bervoets) and their relationship up to the kidnapping, Raymond’s life up to the kidnapping, and Rex’s continued search for Saskia 3 years later, which eventually causes Raymond to reach out to Rex. What The Vanishing doesn’t tell us, until the end, is what exactly happened to Saskia. We know that Raymond must have lured her to his car, but how? We see him try and fail at different attempts to lure other women, plus Saskia is taken at broad daylight in the middle of a busy service station with Rex nearby. We know that Raymond must have drugged her and taken her to his summer home nearby, but then what happened to her? It’s what drives Rex and the movie, and the closer we come to the resolution, the harder it is to even breathe and watch at the same time.
By the time Rex meets Raymond, he’s already gone a little crazy. His search for Saskia has left him in debt, he can’t have normal romantic relationships, he hallucinates, cries out for Saskia. So when Raymond approaches Rex, it doesn’t seem quite as strange that he doesn’t immediately murder Raymond, or try to murder him, or call the cops or something (though Chris, I think, still found it hard to believe that he wouldn’t do that). It’s sort of like hearing about a schizophrenic person shoot themselves in the head in an effort to stop hearing voices. It’s crazy, but if you were able to feel the agony that they felt, maybe the reaction would seem more normal.
Anyway, the more Raymond and Rex talk, the more we learn about Raymond. He refers to himself as a sociopath and claustrophobic. He tells Rex a story of how he saved a little girl from drowning and when he saw how proud his daughter was thought that the only way to validate his unselfish, pure good deed was to counter it with a completely selfish, evil one, so he decides to commit the most horrible act he can think of.
In the end, Raymond never tells Rex what happened to Saskia. Instead he gives him an ultimatum: either Raymond will show Rex what happened to Saskia, by doing the same thing to him, or Raymond will leave and Rex will never know. It’s an agonizing decision that pits what is probably the strongest human instinct (self-preservation) against a strong combination of human emotions (love and curiosity). So, eventually, Rex opts to know, takes a sleeping pill, and the screen goes dark. Later, Rex wakes to find himself in the process of being buried alive; already trapped in a coffin while Raymond piles the dirt on from above. Rex never makes it out, because Saskia never makes it out. Instead we’re left with the image of Rex, alive in a coffin, lit only by the lighter that Saskia gave him, screaming and finally crying out for Saskia.
It’s totally fucking terrifying. The concept alone is horrifying: the person you love getting kidnapped and the only way you find out what happened to them is to experience it yourself, and then learning that you’re both going to die by means of suffocation through being buried alive. Great. But what’s also terrifying is the way Saskia is taken. Eventually, her actual abduction is shown. Saskia is Dutch and outgoing, and Raymond, who is French, compliments Saskia’s French, which she knows is bad. Flattered, she strikes up a conversation with him and notices his golden “R” keychain, which we previously saw Raymond’s youngest daughter give him for his birthday. We also previously saw Saskia making fun of Rex’s keychain, so she asks Raymond where she can buy one herself. Raymond tells her that he’s a salesman for them and has a box in his car, so she follows him there. There is a box in his car, but it’s full of tiles that his wife gave him for his birthday to fix up the summer house with. While he digs through it, he casually tells Saskia to sit in the car. She hesitates, then sees a picture of him with his (all-female) family, smiles, and sits in the passenger seat. And that’s when Raymond violently drugs her with chloroform on a handkerchief before she can scream. It’s so realistic; before we’re shown this we have to wonder why on earth Saskia, who is smart and already with a man she’s in love with, would ever get into super creepy Raymond’s car. But the language barrier, along with Saskia’s trust that Raymond’s family life speaks anything to his character, eventually does her in. And while I still feel fairly confident that I wouldn’t get into a stranger’s car (especially after seeing this movie a few times), the way it’s presented here doesn’t seem totally impossible. And that’s totally scary.
The Vanishing also plays with the familiar the-villain-doesn’t-seem-evil-because-he-seems-normal idea, because he’s a professor with a wife and two daughters that all seem to love him. But The Vanishing doesn’t do much to try to convince us that Raymond is normal; it’s pretty clear from the start that he’s psychotic. But what makes his seemingly normalness scary is how his family factors into his plan. His oldest daughter screams outside their summer house after seeing spiders; after asking a neighbor if he heard screams (he didn’t), Raymond uses this to determine that screams from his summer house won’t be heard. His youngest daughter’s admiration for saving the drowned girl gives him the idea for burying someone alive, and the keychain she gives him is what catches Saskia’s attention. And his wife’s gift of tiles further lures Saskia to her death. They all play a part in Saskia and Rex’s nightmare by doing nothing more than being a loving family.
Please see The Vanishing, but please make sure you’re seeing the 1988 Dutch version, not the (apparently) horrible 1993 American remake, which is hopefully coming up for us soon . . . if Chris can handle it.
I was expecting to like this movie but I was not expecting it to freak me out as much as it did. It’s horrifying. I think what this film does best is making you feel like you know what’s coming and putting a little twist on it. If I had seen this movie in high school I would not have been able to sleep for a week. I’m glad Elizabeth is so fond of it though cause this is definitely not the kind of movie I tend to watch on my own. Please watch this if you like thrillers.