BR: Vanishing, The (1993)

February 23, 2016 | By

Vanishing1993_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: October 14, 2014

Genre:  Suspense

Synopsis: 3 years after the disappearance of his beloved, a man is contacted by her abductor and given one chance to find out what happened.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Warning: this review is jam-packed with SPOILERS!


It’s rare when a Hollywood remake is helmed by the director of its original, critically acclaimed foreign film, but George Sluizer joins an elite club of filmmakers who were given the opportunity to tackle an Americanized version of their contemporary classic with a bigger budget and fancier cast. In Sluizer’s case, the results were generally agreeable.

Much of the story from Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch film Spoorloos was retained – a man racked with guilt from the loss and disappearance of his girlfriend accepts an offer to share the same ‘experiences’ with her killer to gain closure 3 years after she vanished  at a highway gas station – but screenwriter / co-producer Todd Graff (Used People, The Beautician and the Beast) reworked the story with a more conventional finale, as Sluizer’s film, much like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (which the director remade shot-for-shot 10 years after the original), closed with an cruel twist that no major studio would tolerate (although Haneke did stay true to his 1997 shocker in every detail).

Graff’s script is fine in the first section where two storylines gradually converge: copyrighter Jeff (Kiefer Sutherland) waits for soul mate Diane (Sandra Bullock) at a gas station near still-bleak Mount St. Helens (a truly inspired location) and discovers she’s utterly disappeared; and Barney Cousins (Jeff Bridges) rehearses his abduction procedures while juggling his everyday roles as an average dad, a husband, and a chemistry teacher. The two sections are intercut until Diane disappears, after which we watch Jeff change to a lonely, unemployed and obsessed man who updates Missing Woman posters around the Baltimore area, and retains a secret hotel room where he’s managed his search for three years.

Life changes a little when pretty diner waitress Rita (Nancy Travis) takes pity and develops a friendship, and the pair become a couple until Jeff’s secret search causes an inevitable fracture, making him both alone and ideal prey for Barney to approach with a tantalizing offer no obsessed lover could pass: one chance to experience Diane’s final moments to gain closure, or forever live with guilt.

The premise is crazy in that Jeff won’t go to the police nor attempt some revenge of his own; it’s crazier still he’d drink coffee laced with a drug and allow himself to go through her agony; but what’s at play in Sluizer’s film (and presumably in Tim Krabbé’s original novel) is how a sociopath is able to (almost) destroy another person by exploiting the latter’s hunger for closure.

Jeff’s pleas to the killer in regional TV interviews (‘I don’t hate you. I just want to meet you’) and media streams isn’t annoying to the killer, but Barney’s clearly moved on with his life after sating his own curiosity in plotting and ‘experiencing’ a simple act of cruelty, and one suspects he makes the offer to Jeff because he’s puzzled as to why he simply can’t ‘get over’ Diane. Being a chemistry teacher, Barney needs to know why his experiment remains incomplete.

He therefore approaches Jeff with a ready-made plan to snatch and kill him, but he’s also fine if Jeff chooses to balk and leave; Barney actually gives him several opportunities to do so, but his teasing is ongoing, and he realizes his potential victim lacks the ability to forgive, forget, and move on.

In both versions, the devoted, guilt-racked boyfriend agrees and drinks the coffee, but where Sluizer went for a simple, cruel finale in 1988, Graff’s script bears a more intricate yet conventional wrap-up which ensures evil can’t win, and the closure experienced by Jeff also gives mainstream audiences peace of mind.

In the original, it’s not whether the girlfriend was murdered that’s important, but how a banal vessel of evil managed to plot and execute such a horrible yet simple plan; the remake tries to better that film’s elegant simplicity by planting little seeds which ensure Jeff won’t be doomed and the killer does get his ‘shovel-full’ of just desserts. Graff’s script isn’t over-complicated – all the clues and character mistakes more or less make sense – but they become so conventional that there isn’t any suspense in the finale.

However, one blunder stands out like a throbbing sore thumb, and it’s where the script recedes from clever to mundanity: Rita takes Jeff’s gun to Barney’s cabin where she hopes to save him, but instead of opening the hard case and carrying the loaded pistol in a pocket, she drags the bulky metal case not only from their apartment to the car, but carries it down the road to the cabin, opening it on the way where Barney could easily whack her on the head and have two victims to play with. Graff establishes early in the film she hates guns, but there’s no logic in carrying a weapon in a latched box down a dangerous path when the urgency to use it for protection is immediate and obvious. In the end, there is no gun, as Jeff left a big note for Rita and audiences to read, and see that he dumped the pistol ‘because she was right’ about guns. It’s a ludicrous cheap little cheat.

The other issue that plagues the remake is in being completely transformed into a standard Hollywood thriller. Vestiges of the original’s dramatic potency lie in Sutherland’s decent portrayal of a broken and obsessed man, but standard to a studio film is the false belief that audiences require battered & bruised victims to enjoy cathartic revenge so the world is right, morality remains strong, and two lovers are united to enjoy a sunny future together (plus Diane’s spirit is given closure and experiences justice in witnessing at close range her killer’s demise). Sluizer’s 1988 version is more affecting because just as Haneke denies us any scenes of gore and violence in Funny Games, Sluizer steers away from clues, red herrings, cheap shocks, and a neat happy ending.

And then there’s Bridges’ very bizarre interpretation of a banal killer who creates an environment for his victim(s) to die rather than perform a cold and bloody act of murder with his bare hands. Barney is an oddball: he’s a quirky and annoying schmuck who ambles in a see-saw manner instead of a clean erect walk; his speech isn’t rooted in any home state but sounds vaguely foreign in the way Bridges accents words and pauses. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s score (which sounds like a blend of The Russia House meets Sleeping with the Enemy) reflects Barney’s oddness, giving the film moments of lightness which may have been designed to lure audiences into false states of security, but sometimes runs contrary to the darker cues which enhance Barney’s evil plan to victimize Jeff, and later Rita by adapting his bag of tricks to their respective states of sudden vulnerability.

Sluizer took advantage of his charismatic cast and nice budget and delivered a slick production with beautiful compositions by Peter Suschitzy and fine production design by Jeannine Oppewall, but as often happens with remakes, the new film has no reason to exist when the original is much more effective in dramatizing the deadly consequences of how obsession makes a man so deeply vulnerable to banal evil. The remake’s aged into a curiosity of casting and Hollywood thriller conventions circa 1993, but it’s a very different experience than the 1988 shocker which was low-key, and far more unsettling.

Sluizer was never a prolific director – between 1961 and 1988 he directed 7 feature films – and while he did helm several more international productions, his late career is tied to the aborted 1993 film Dark Blood, and the filming during which co-star River Phoenix died during production. The film remained in legal limbo until the directed ‘rescued’ the raw footage and created a reconstruction in 2012. That work proved to be his final film, and while Hollywood may not have given him optimum career choices, even in The Vanishing remake, he showed great skill in handling dangerous dances between morally opposite characters, and a flair for stories with a genuine oddness.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a crisp transfer and both 5.1 and 2.0 surround sound mixes, and an isolated stereo music track of Goldsmith’s decent but generic suspense score. The trailer contains far too many money shots from the finale, but it works as an effective teaser, focusing on the ‘what if’ factor of meeting a killer person-to-person.

Danish director Ole Bornedal was also given the opportunity to remake his fine thriller Nightwatch / Nattevagten (1994), and like Haneke, American director Gus Van Sant remade Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in a purely technical exercise to replicate the original classic in colour, stereo, and a contemporary cast, circa 1998. None of these remakes offers anything new, but certainly in cases where the original director is engaged by Hollywood to transfer his original concept for English language audiences, some cineastes will feel a need to know whether critics were wrong, and whether there’s any moments of brilliance that briefly evokes the original works, or transcends the original outright.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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