Monday, January 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Vanishings

Like many a film lover, I’ve grown weary of lazy remakes. But you know what makes me even more grumpy and tired? People complaining about remakes.
They exist. They have since the dawning of film. Sometimes they make me want to slaughter mutant newborn babies and Bijou Philips. Other times they make me happier than a blob eating a phonebooth. It’s a topic my blogging pal T.L.Bugg covered all through October (I even stopped by with a top 13 list) and one that doesn’t deserve generalizations.
Which brings us to today’s double feature:
1988’s Dutch-French mashup Spoorloos

and 1993’s The Vanishing

Director George Sluizer filmed two versions of Tim Krabbe’s novel, The Golden Egg, presumably for two different types of audiences. His first foray is a quiet, suspenseful tale of obsession dripping with tragic nihilism. Five years later, Luizer reattacked the material, setting it in the US and tossing in an action movie in the film’s final act.
Plain and simple, I preferred Sluizer’s original. It’s more haunting, less conventional, and overall, a far more frustratingly rewarding trip into evil. That being said, his 1993 second try is interesting in its own right and today, I’d like to discuss both in SPOILERIFIC detail.

You’ve been warned.
Quick Plot: A happy yet imperfect couple is enjoying a mini-vacation when their car runs out of gas. Movie 1’s Saskia freaks out when boyfriend Rex brashly leaves her to fill up, an insensitive action after she told him about her terrifying, nightmare wherein she was abandoned. Though Rex returns, Luizer establishes a subtle theme of her fears, something that (in hindsight) makes the whole of Spoorloos truly sad.

Sluizer drops the golden egg dream in his American adaptation, a choice that speeds up the action while denying us enough connection to Diane (played with, I’ll concede, likable charm by a young pre-Blind Side Sandra Bullock). Part of this probably stems from the opening switch. Where the Dutch Vanishing starts with Rex and Saskia, the American one frames the tale with the villain, played with a bizarre posh Minnesotean accent by Jeff Bridges.

In both versions, we watch Raymond/Barney practicing his abduction, timing the effects of chloroform and getting comfortable with the challenge of the muffle. In his second film, Sluizer makes Bridges a constant lurking figure, setting the tone from the very first scene. In that sense, it’s a far more conventional thriller with an immediate villain. Bridges is undeniably a great actor, but it’s hard to uncrack his Barney. Like the Dutch version, we get his anecdote about discovering his sociopathy, but there’s something more unnatural here. The French Raymond comes off as a regular schoolteacher and family man successfully hiding his inner evil, a sort of not-as-good-looking Dexter Morgan dipping his toes into something he’ll never regret. Bridges never quite sells his everyman-ness. If you had a conversation with him--and that weird voice--at a rest stop, you’d be more likely to throw to feign deafness to avoid any connection.

Though both villains are fathers, Luizer does make a few changes in their respective relationships to their teenage daughters (or daughter, in Bridges’ case). We’re never quite sure how Raymond feels about the women in his life. Though he comes off like a good parent, we simply don’t get enough interaction to know if he harbors blankness or like our old sociopathic pal Mr. Morgan, a gradual appreciation for the hole they fill in his otherwise empty life.
In Bridges case, things are different. He’s a cold husband but a loving dad (even if you uses his daughter in a screaming spider test), a point that comes in handy for the final act. On Sluizer’s part, was this a choice for character or plot? There’s untapped potential in the daughter, who may, one could almost hope, prove to have her own hidden evil. But using her presence as a mere plot convenience that buys Nancy Travis (we’ll get there) time and survival opportunity ultimately feels more like a final act storyline bowtie than psychological trait.

And what of Rex/Jeff, arguably the protagonist of both films? Gene Bervoet’s (Dutch Rex)’s performance is as interesting as it is frustrating. He’s something of a jerk, a questionable boyfriend who later proves more obsessed than ever in love. Kiefer Sutherland, in contrast, takes on the role with a strong balance of vulnerability and boneheadedness. What starts as fear and inadequacy about losing Diane turns--perhaps more believably--into resignation. Yet even though he knows deep down Diane is dead, his fatal flaw grows: he simply needs the truth.
Enter the biggest plot difference in the films in the form of a new girlfriend, a brief stopping point in the Dutch version but a major plot point of Nancy ‘90s Travis in the second. The first film uses her economically to demonstrate the extent of Rex’s obsession (and also, jerkiness). Travis’s Rita, however, becomes the key factor in the remake’s ending.

What to make of that coda. Sluizer’s first film is memorable among other things for its nihilistic conclusion, with Rex finally learning Saskia’s fate inside a coffin. It’s a brave and terrifying way to end a film.
Well, Kiefer (it's easiest to think of him by that name) wakes up in a compromising position but lucky for him, his curly haired sweetheart is sobering up and fast on his trail. Through some Nancy (Travis) Drewing, Rita finds Jeff and Barney and enters into an action packed showdown. Ho. Hum.

I admire Sluizer’s decision to rethink his film for American audiences. The idea of remaking one’s own work seems silly if you’re not doing anything differently, and watching a direct translation would’ve been a waste.
That being said, I join the Dutch Team on this one. Though the American performances (save for Bridges, whose work here I’m still undecided on) are absolutely fine, the overall makeover feels so utterly 1990s thriller. This is one of Travis’ more standout roles (not to be cruel, but I wonder if if there’s a reason she’s always relegated to girlfriend bit parts) but making the film her story missed out on the more complex and fascinating aspects of Kiefer’s conflict. The first film was a study on obsession. This one was ultimately about a cottage set chase sequence.

Lessons Learned
A fight does not equal a thing
Part of the diner waitress uniform involves frizzy hair (makes sense), gigantic earrings (seems inconvenient with frizzy hair), and gum
Because every now and then I forget, allow me to point out a truth we all know: the 1990s were an awful awful time for ladies’ fashion

On the flip side, DMVs were ridiculously friendly and accommodating
Doctors notes for claustrophobia do not get you out of wearing your seatbelt
Rent(x 2)/Bury (moohahaha x2)/ Buy(x2)
Don’t, as I did, watch Spoorloos and follow it up the next day with The Vanishing. You’d think I’d know this by now.
Overall, I recommend both films, with the following rules:
-If you only have the time or energy to see one, go with Spoorloos. It’s more powerful, more thoughtful, and ultimately leaves you far more haunted than about 80% of genre film.

-Want to watch both? Do it. But wait a week or month between viewing. If you don’t already know the original’s ending (you know, even though I already told you about it) then watch the Dutch version first to ensure it packs its intended punch. If you’re a man or woman of no restraint, then it may actually pay to see the more conventional American version first. You can enjoy it for its slickness then go deeper when your appetite is whetted something more complex.


  1. For whatever reason, I actually own a copy of the original "Vanishing." Don't know why. It's a good movie and all, and I'll watch it maybe once a year -- really depressing and downbeat stuff, though, so not the kind of thing you just "throw on" any old time for a larf. I've never seen the remake, but now I'm semi-tempted. I will say this, though -- the Criterion DVD for Scroo-Loos or whatever it's called has the most god-awful trailer. That trailer might have kept me away from the movie.

    I know what you mean about people complaining about remakes. Me, I get annoyed when people complain about 3D. I'm neither for nor against 3D, but I definitely AM against the way "some people" will go on and on about 3D, getting the issue way out of proportion. There. I've said my peace.

  2. Yup, I loved the original but I don't see myself rewatching it anytime soon. Not so much great for parties or happy go lucky cleaning days, which is generally when I dip into my collection rather than watching something new.

    And I think the remake is incredibly inferior to the original, but it has a lot of merit just in seeing how the director re-approached his material. I too just despise the negative nancies film fams--particularly horror ones--who just love to complain about what's modern. Remakes can be awful, but occasionally, they're fine, or great, or interesting. Same with 3D. Nobody is fighting you a la Nada in They Live to PUT THE GLASSES ON.