No Sleep October: Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988)

Andrew Kimmel works in publishing and almost never writes unless there is some threat to his well-being. His favorite New Year’s tradition with his partner is watching as many horror movies as they can until they pass out.

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“To know that, I’m prepared to do anything. I don’t hate you. I don’t hate anything. But I need to know. I need to know.”

She’s only been in the gas station for a moment. A minute or two tops. It only feels like it’s been a long time because it’s hot out and you’re ready to get back on the road toward vacation and maybe you’re still just a little crabby about the last thing she said. You chat up fellow travelers. You put her purse in the car. You get out and take a photograph, chronicling.

Certainly she’ll be done soon. Maybe you’ll just go in and keep her company because outside is boring without her. But it’s crowded and you don’t see her. She went into the bathroom. Or she just left as you entered, you think. The rest area isn’t enormous after all. Leave a note at the car that you’re looking for her. Call out her name.

Call out her name.

Call out her name!

Ask others if they have seen her. She was talking with a man — a man! — by the coffee machine. When? 15 minutes ago. What next? I don’t know; I changed the oil.

Slam the car door. Break the window. Talk with the manager. Realize the photograph could have captured her. Her assailant. Demand answers.

Sleep in the car. Wait.

Wait.

Wait.

And so passes six of the most dread-filled minutes of cinema, especially to any viewer who has even momentarily lost someone or something important. It is a supreme example of the Hitchcockian phrase, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Viewers will find that Spoorloos (The Vanishing) is anticipation.

We’re always looking for a movie that will live inside our heads. No matter the genres we prefer, we want a movie that becomes ingrained in us and changes us irrevocably. These become our favorites — well-loved because they came to us at the right time in our lives, made us consider concepts we had never considered before or were stories so beautifully told and packaged that to not enjoy them seems a crime against our very being.

The best for me are the ones that cause initial feelings of hatred. I’ll say I was too bored with the pacing or too put off by the two-dimensional mundanity of a character. But days pass, and my mind is still fixated on the story and the decisions made to bring it to life. I agonize over every detail, and this trial by hatred turns into obsession. I become Ahab. I study the minutiae. I try to crawl into the movie as much as it has crawled into me. I need to know why I can’t stop thinking about it. My subconscious screams that my conscious mind missed too much.

My guard was down, and now it has become part of me.

When considering movies to write about for No Sleep October, I wanted to write about one that caused that reaction. One I did not necessarily love because love is never the right word, but one that took something from me and left something extraordinary in its place. I went through my list of favorites and narrowed it down to a handful. But one stood out in particular.

The Vanishing (known by its Dutch title Spoorloos, literally “without trace”) was the only one I felt scared to rewatch — wanting to avoid those feelings of dread and anger, the complementary madnesses of Rex Hofman and Raymond Lemorne, and the movie’s inevitable ending.

The Vanishing is based on a novella by Tim Krabbé entitled The Golden Egg (Krabbé also has screenwriting credits) and follows Rex’s obsessive search for his girlfriend, Saskia, after she disappears at a rest area.

What is most unique about the film is that it does not build suspense in the way other horror-thrillers do, which is to say manufacturing it through a tense score or coy obfuscation. We know from the onset what happens. We know Raymond Lemorne is the perpetrator. There is no traditional mystery. Yet it still unsettles us.

Stanley Kubrick was enamored with The Vanishing, going so far as to call it the most terrifying movie he had ever watched and calling the director, George Sluizer, to discuss editing techniques. Here, “terrifying” is the perfect word. This is not a movie with jump scares, supernatural entities or a completely evil antagonist. Those tropes have their positive qualities and their places in horror. The Vanishing does not seek to frighten, and it doesn’t because it is not shocking in a clutch-your-pearls sense. Viewers will not be shaking and peering around each corner for boogeymen or even disgusted by its sights or tensed up with on-the-edge-of-your-seat expectations. Rather, its terrifying element allows the movie to live rent-free inside our heads, depending upon the deep and pervasive dread it fills the viewer with as the tale is told, and it makes the movie nearly un-rewatchable once the conclusion is revealed.

Part of its strength comes from playing on more basic and all-too-human fears. The girlfriend’s abduction and ease with which the perpetrator accomplishes his task seems like a story we scroll past with some regularity on our phones. We tell each other to be safe and watch out for people with unknown motives. However, the killer-in-the-bushes is only a common trope in our films and fantasies. It’s worth noting that serial killer Ted Bundy successfully lured multiple women to their deaths precisely because he conveyed fragility and trustworthiness to his victims, sometimes going so far as to fake an injury to draw them in close — much like the antagonist of The Vanishing. And while this fear has always been prevalent, it is ever raw in a time when the everyday atrocities men commit against women who think they know them well are finally brought into the national conversation after too long a time spent lurking in the shadows.

The Vanishing asks: What makes a killer? And how is he all that different from you?

Not only is Raymond uncomfortably normal, he is capable of uncomfortably evil acts, conducting them almost amorally and without emotion. The banality of evil has been in our vocabulary since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. I do not think for a moment that the antagonist of The Vanishing believes himself to be an evil man but rather an imperfect one unworthy of idolization. He is aware of this only because he committed a horrible act, which, in his eyes, is tantamount to data collection.

He tells a story of saving a girl from drowning: “My daughter was bursting with pride. But I thought that her admiration wasn’t worth anything unless I could prove myself absolutely incapable of doing anything evil. And as black cannot exist without white, I logically conceived the most horrible deed that I could envision right at that moment. But I want you to know, for me killing is not the worst thing.”

This man has a family, who we meet in some detail. He’s Ted Bundy-charming without the baggage of leaving a slew of evidence in the form of multiple victims. Moreover, we never get a vision of an unstable person, as many horrors and thrillers create when crafting antagonists. Those films give us a wink to rest our unease. Don’t worry, they seem to say, this charming killer could be discovered in the right circumstance. They’ll smash plates at dinner over a perceived slight. There will be an outburst. You will be able to tell and then you’ll be safe. You are not like them.

The Vanishing pulls no such punches. Raymond is precisely the person of whom neighbors would say “he seemed like such a nice man” when the police discover human remains on his property. Here is a killer who gets away because sometimes killers get away. He is not unstable, he is intently aware and normal. He is merely curious of his capabilities and how to accomplish a task. He is the personification of the taboo wonderment we all have when faced with studying the human oddity of a killer. And the film is happy to oblige our curiosity, walking us through the extreme preparations our killer goes through to ensure he is successful. He practices. He analyzes the effect of chloroform on the human body. He encourages his daughters to scream to determine if the neighbors can hear someone at this property.

Alongside this charming abductor is Rex, a man obsessed in a different way. It has been years since Saskia has gone missing. Rex is in another relationship, but he still posts posters asking for information. He still makes appearances on television, pleading with the abductor, whom he knows through the taunting postcards Raymond sends him, to at least share what has happened to Saskia: “To know that, I’m prepared to do anything. I don’t hate you. I don’t hate anything. But I need to know. I need to know.”

Rex goes so far as to tell his new paramour, “If Saskia were here now, I’d still go with you. But if it were possible to really choose, I’d rather be at that gas station, three years ago.”

Rex is a man driven mad by the past who cannot let go and who simply must know what has happened — perhaps to prove to himself that Saskia is dead (though he acutely feels it is true). Perhaps for a need of closure. But he needs to know. And so do we. Because even from the semi-omniscient eye of the audience — who knows who and what and when and even mostly how — a hunger for the details remains.

Unbeknownst to Rex, Raymond sits near him at the café where he tells his fiancé he would rather be with Saskia three years ago at that gas station. So finally the delicious and dreadful irony of The Vanishing’s ending begins. Raymond approaches Rex, identifies himself and says that if Rex wants to know, if he truly wants to know, Raymond will put him through the same experience. In the process of ending, The Vanishing provides a neat bow on every frightful emotion desired when watching horror.

Rex does experience the same fate as Saskia, and in that moment, everything is experienced. It’s grief. It’s fear. It’s anger. We feel it too. Why didn’t Rex just let go? Would we? Rex’s curiosity culminates in confirming the finality of Saskia’s life which confirms that he could not let go (no matter how close he was to possibly rediscovering a sense of self and happiness) and that his own demise is brought on by that very insatiable curiosity. His is such an intense grief that he can only meet his doom with nervous laughter. He has lost everything, but even more he has made real a loss he had been able to keep at bay for years.

Raymond, on the other hand, sits at his property with his loving family — perhaps thinking that he, in a way, has finally done a kindness by removing Rex’s suffering once and for all. Or does he reckon another approach he happened upon earlier in the film: “Soon, you realize you’re up to your neck in something intense, but that doesn’t matter. You keep at it for the sheer pleasure of it. For the pure satisfaction it might bring you”?

We all watch horror movies for different reasons, which is why the genre has so many successful and nuanced subgenres. Some of us watch to be grossed out by the Tom Sixes and Jörg Buttgereits of the world. Some of us watch because we like the thrill of the suspense, the cathartic release of each jump scare and the relief after the movie is over that we are safe. Some of us watch in order to laugh at the absurdity of the genre and its satirical takes on itself and its one-liners.

But others watch horror movies to be psychologically disturbed. We invite into our minds the darkest thoughts and possibilities. I can’t answer if we are prone to this grotesqueness because there is beauty in the ugly or because we want access to the knowledge of the darkness that human nature can bring so we may fully appreciate its light. I can’t answer the unceasing yearning for that disturbance or what we are left with once we obtain it.

But for The Vanishing, I can say this. I can say that it is a film that causes introspection as much as social analysis. It causes discussion — which all good movies ought to do — about closure, guilt, powerlessness, curiosity, evil, fate and the fear that we lay traps for ourselves. But one of the most terrifying elements of it all is that the simplest and most everyday man can commit the most horrendous act for no other reason than that he decides to do so.

Because we need to know the reason behind actions, and the thought that the question “Why?” has no answer has bothered man for millennia.

We need to know.

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For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.

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NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018

 

Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma



Guest Writer


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