Disappearing Acts

by Tom Thor Buchanan

Film still from The Vanishing. A missing person poster tacked on a telephone pole showing a young woman who's been missing for 3 years.

It may be that Americans (and I use “American” in a sweep-of-the-hand way that both flatters and condemns me, a Canadian) are the last people in the world who go to the movies expecting to see themselves on the screen. I mean that both in the aspirational sense, like how our politics include clamorous demands for superheroes who resemble us, and in the sense that if you wait long enough, most foreign movies eventually become American movies. Remakes come naturally to Hollywood, which has always been composed of factories in studio drag. A Star is Born has been the most reliable sourdough property, having earned a profit for everyone from David O. Selznick to Live Nation. Even Edison did it, transforming a British film called The Countryman and Cinematograph into something called Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show. As a B-rate director in 1937’s Stand-In says: “Great Films are not made. They are remade!”

George Sluizer made two films called The Vanishing, one in 1988 in his native Netherlands and another in Hollywood in 1993. Both feature similar plots: a woman goes missing while on vacation with her boyfriend, fatally crossing paths with an existential academic plotting the perfect murder and pondering his own will to power while testing out chloroform. Eventually, the boyfriend and murderer meet, and we learn what happened to the girl: something terrible and gothic, what the murderer imagines as “the only thing worse than death.”

Film still from The Vanishing. A young woman and man sit against a tree during the summer, smiling at each other.

The original Vanishing was an unimpeachable example of European sangfroid, full of chilly reserve but also memorable idiosyncrasies (the killer, played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, looks like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys and at one point the boyfriend’s computer starts to talk to him). It’s a horror movie that makes you feel smart for being afraid.

The American remake moves the plot to the Pacific Northwest, Ted Bundy’s hunting ground (the film borrows techniques from Bundy’s real-life murders, like the use of a fake cast to gain victims’ sympathy). Jeff Bridges plays his version of the psychopath in a stringy wig and Lorne Michaels accent. Kiefer Sutherland, playing the boyfriend, shows his despair by growing a mullet. Most of its failings are almost too trite to be worth repeating: replacing the original’s fatalist ruminations with a romantic subplot, giving us the thrill of the original’s violence but sweetening it with an 11th-hour happy ending. The original Dutch version was written in collaboration with Tim Krabbé, author of one of the few truly great modern existentialism novels, The Rider—for the American remake Sluizer enlisted the screenwriter from The Beautician and the Beast.

"It’s a horror movie that makes you feel smart for being afraid."

Up until his death in 2014, Sluizer was always evasive about why he chose to remake his own film for his first Hollywood project. When questioned about the difference between American and European audiences, he demurred by insisting that many Europeans preferred American films to their own, though he did concede that the U.S. audience was a more “gut level” kind of creature, and that their attention was more “childlike.”

Regardless, by the time the film came out (to be roundly panned), Sluizer had dug himself another grave, filming a psychedelic desert thriller called Dark Blood which starred River Phoenix, who died three weeks before production was scheduled to complete. Sluizer wanted to finish the film but was blocked by insurers and backers. He eventually had to steal the reels from a storage locker and released a cut almost a decade later, remarking that it felt like he was remaking the film all over again.

I find it impossible not to compare Sluizer and The Vanishing with another European director who came to Hollywood to remake one of his own films. After achieving international success, Michael Haneke decided to remake his own Funny Games in Hollywood in 2007. Having originally envisioned the film taking place in America, he produced a shot-for-shot recreation starring Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt. Haneke’s films have always had a sense of his own iron will at the centre of them—and it made sense for the director to return to his own rhetoric about the media and violence and presumably some other lofty themes of his own invention. He is a born and brilliant scold, and scolds usually don’t mind repeating themselves.

"We’re left to determine for ourselves what Sluizer was trying to tell us, so emphatically that he had to do it twice."

Johanna ter Steege, who stars in the 1988 version of The Vanishing, only filmed for a few days during production. In total, she only appears in around ten minutes of footage. But her image haunts the film, appearing in gauzy flashbacks and on the “Missing” posters her ex-lover plasters across the French countryside. The photo he uses on the posters is one taken just before her disappearance (and used for the film’s promotional poster). In it she’s blinking through bright sunlight, smiling tentatively, her hair innocently frames her face, dyed a reddish blonde because it reminded Sluizer of his own teenage daughter. When she first saw herself on screen, ter Steege was shocked:

“I walked out of the cinema, and I was really angry. I said to George ‘Why? Why do you want to make a film like this? What do you want to tell the people? Is the world so dark?”

Film still from The Vanishing. A man and a woman drive in a car. The woman looks at the man with a small smile, who's looking at the road with a slight smile.

How Sluizer answered goes unrecorded, and we’re left to determine for ourselves what he was trying to tell us, so emphatically that he had to do it twice. Is it that human despair is inexhaustible and intimately translatable? Or that Americans like to be teased with darkness as long as the lights are turned back on in the end?

In the original Vanishing, Sluizer had created a delicately balanced composition of the cruelty that exists between strangers. The remake is less an elaboration of that theme than the punchline to a joke you’ve already heard: a girl walks into a gas station but never walks out… if Sluizer was trying to tell us anything in 1993, it was just whatever we wanted to hear.

George Sluizer made two films called The Vanishing, one in 1988 in his native Netherlands and another in Hollywood in 1993. Both feature similar plots: a woman goes missing while on vacation with her boyfriend, fatally crossing paths with an existential academic plotting the perfect murder and pondering his own will to power while testing out chloroform. Eventually, the boyfriend and murderer meet, and we learn what happened to the girl: something terrible and gothic, what the murderer imagines as “the only thing worse than death.”

Film still from The Vanishing. A young woman and man sit against a tree during the summer, smiling at each other.

The original Vanishing was an unimpeachable example of European sangfroid, full of chilly reserve but also memorable idiosyncrasies (the killer, played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, looks like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys and at one point the boyfriend’s computer starts to talk to him). It’s a horror movie that makes you feel smart for being afraid.

The American remake moves the plot to the Pacific Northwest, Ted Bundy’s hunting ground (the film borrows techniques from Bundy’s real-life murders, like the use of a fake cast to gain victims’ sympathy). Jeff Bridges plays his version of the psychopath in a stringy wig and Lorne Michaels accent. Kiefer Sutherland, playing the boyfriend, shows his despair by growing a mullet. Most of its failings are almost too trite to be worth repeating: replacing the original’s fatalist ruminations with a romantic subplot, giving us the thrill of the original’s violence but sweetening it with an 11th-hour happy ending. The original Dutch version was written in collaboration with Tim Krabbé, author of one of the few truly great modern existentialism novels, The Rider—for the American remake Sluizer enlisted the screenwriter from The Beautician and the Beast.

"It’s a horror movie that makes you feel smart for being afraid."

Up until his death in 2014, Sluizer was always evasive about why he chose to remake his own film for his first Hollywood project. When questioned about the difference between American and European audiences, he demurred by insisting that many Europeans preferred American films to their own, though he did concede that the U.S. audience was a more “gut level” kind of creature, and that their attention was more “childlike.”

Regardless, by the time the film came out (to be roundly panned), Sluizer had dug himself another grave, filming a psychedelic desert thriller called Dark Blood which starred River Phoenix, who died three weeks before production was scheduled to complete. Sluizer wanted to finish the film but was blocked by insurers and backers. He eventually had to steal the reels from a storage locker and released a cut almost a decade later, remarking that it felt like he was remaking the film all over again.

I find it impossible not to compare Sluizer and The Vanishing with another European director who came to Hollywood to remake one of his own films. After achieving international success, Michael Haneke decided to remake his own Funny Games in Hollywood in 2007. Having originally envisioned the film taking place in America, he produced a shot-for-shot recreation starring Naomi Watts and Michael Pitt. Haneke’s films have always had a sense of his own iron will at the centre of them—and it made sense for the director to return to his own rhetoric about the media and violence and presumably some other lofty themes of his own invention. He is a born and brilliant scold, and scolds usually don’t mind repeating themselves.

"We’re left to determine for ourselves what Sluizer was trying to tell us, so emphatically that he had to do it twice."

Johanna ter Steege, who stars in the 1988 version of The Vanishing, only filmed for a few days during production. In total, she only appears in around ten minutes of footage. But her image haunts the film, appearing in gauzy flashbacks and on the “Missing” posters her ex-lover plasters across the French countryside. The photo he uses on the posters is one taken just before her disappearance (and used for the film’s promotional poster). In it she’s blinking through bright sunlight, smiling tentatively, her hair innocently frames her face, dyed a reddish blonde because it reminded Sluizer of his own teenage daughter. When she first saw herself on screen, ter Steege was shocked:

“I walked out of the cinema, and I was really angry. I said to George ‘Why? Why do you want to make a film like this? What do you want to tell the people? Is the world so dark?”

Film still from The Vanishing. A man and a woman drive in a car. The woman looks at the man with a small smile, who's looking at the road with a slight smile.

How Sluizer answered goes unrecorded, and we’re left to determine for ourselves what he was trying to tell us, so emphatically that he had to do it twice. Is it that human despair is inexhaustible and intimately translatable? Or that Americans like to be teased with darkness as long as the lights are turned back on in the end?

In the original Vanishing, Sluizer had created a delicately balanced composition of the cruelty that exists between strangers. The remake is less an elaboration of that theme than the punchline to a joke you’ve already heard: a girl walks into a gas station but never walks out… if Sluizer was trying to tell us anything in 1993, it was just whatever we wanted to hear.