Generating pure terror on screen isn't always easy in our current age of cinematic overkill, but the 1988 Dutch thriller "The Vanishing" (Westside Pavilion) succeeds the old-fashioned way: by hooking us on characters and undercurrents, seducing us into a clean, logical nightmare, then, after making each twist plausible, opening an abyss under our feet.
It's unlikely that any audience will soon forget the last two minutes of this movie--though many may want to. Nor are they likely to forget Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, who, with this performance, claims a strong place in the pantheon of recent movie villains. Donnadieu's Raymond Lemorne, a French chemistry teacher and fond father of two, is a man of unusual intelligence, self-discipline and a pleasant air: the sort of guy you'd be relieved to meet at night on a deserted street.
Lemorne represents the evil you can't see coming, a seemingly motiveless, fathomless malignancy that erupts as if out of nowhere. Like a chubby, pale-eyed demon, he becomes linked with two attractive, slightly neurotic Dutch lovers on holiday--Gene Bervoets as the repressed Rex, and Johanna Ter Steege, whose impulsive, ravishing Saskia is the movie's most painfully memorable image.
Director George Sluizer, who adapted the script with Tim Krabbe from Krabbe's novel "The Golden Egg," understands the principle of Hitchcockian counterpoint. Beginning with sunlight, open air and this sweet, troubled couple, he detonates a typical plot twist: Saskia's inexplicable disappearance and her lover's frantic search.
But, as in real life, the nightmare refuses to resolve itself. Rex's obsession with finding the lover he promised never to abandon is matched by the cunning of Lemorne, who knows what happened and begins teasing and tricking his pursuer.
Sluizer has specialized in documentaries, and it's the near-documentary verisimilitude of "The Vanishing"--the casual street scenes, the recurring radio commentary on the Tour de France, the truck stop buzzing with life--that help render the nightmare plausible. There's an everyday horror here that Sluizer captures astutely, and a more metaphysical horror beyond.
"The Vanishing" (Times rated Mature, for adult and disturbing themes) is a movie about second chances, love stronger than death, and the power of ideas: the ideas that motivate its villain, the love that dominates his targets. At the end, it demonstrates powerfully how rationality divorced from compassion can spawn evil of the cruellest sort. The face of Lemorne--a mild-mannered experimenter obsessed with crossing the barriers of human conduct--and the appalling, horrific climax of "The Vanishing" will haunt your mind long after this film is over.
A Tara distribution release of an Egg Films production. Producers Anne London, George Sluizer. Director/editor Sluizer. Script Tim Krabbe. Camera Toni Kuhn. Music Henry Vrienten. Sets Santiago Tsidro Pin. With Gene Bervoets, Johanna Ter Steege, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
Times-rated: Mature (Little overt sex or violence, but mature, disturbing themes.)