Monday, November 3, 2014

THE VANISHING: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1993) Twilight Time

Let’s address the elephant in the room right away, shall we? George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1993) is not his 1988 Dutch masterpiece, Spoorloos. Yes, both movies are based on Tim Krabbé’s novel, Het Gouden Ei (The Golden Egg). And, until the last act, both run fairly parallel in the shadowy abduction of a young woman from a roadside station, leading her tortured boyfriend on an obsessive quest to learn the truth. But this is where the similarity between the two films ends – or rather, ought to.  For in introducing the working class feminist, Rita Baker (Nancy Travis) into the remake, screenwriter, Todd Graff completely alters the gloomily effecting chemistry of the original. It’s to the remake’s benefit rather than its detriment. I realize I am in the minority here; the critics virtually unanimous in their vitriolic condemnation of The Vanishing as an inferior piece of thriller fluff, watered down for the average American moviegoers’ mindless and presumably, artistically bankrupt cinema sensibilities.
In fact, The Vanishing was labeled the worst remake of all time; a “misguided” and “lobotomized” exercise about “the evil of banality” instead of the other way around. Oh, those ballsy, brash critics – much too eager and relentless to misjudge most any remake by direct comparison to its prototype, instead of appreciating Sluizer’s subtler revisions as brilliantly reworked augmentations: because, that is exactly what they are. Whether the overall narrative arc is impacted positively by these deviations is an entirely different matter and one definitely open for discussion. I would argue The Vanishing functions on its own terms; taking full advantage of the seemingly innocuous roadside truck stop, spookily lit, and thoroughly isolated – if picturesque – lake house settings. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s exquisite underscore capture the essential oppressiveness of the perpetually rain-soaked Seattle backdrop.  Of course, any great thriller does not function by mood alone and, for my money The Vanishing is a great thriller.
The film’s biggest asset is Jeff Bridges’ quirkily ominous, yet seemingly ‘normal’ college professor; Barney Cousins - quietly reveling in the particulars of his self-taught, diabolically concocted Nietzsche-esque experiment; the ultimate ‘thrill kill’ designed for no reason other than to test his fallibility as a devoted husband and father. Is he as good a person as his family believes him to be, or is he capable of the most unspeakable crime against humanity – able to keep his blood-pressure relative while he casually buries victims alive as though he were innocuously potting azaleas in his own backyard? Bridges, an actor who has convincingly proven his chameleon’s skin over the years, is strangely mechanical and bumbling, deliciously clever and bone-chillingly psychotic. Here is a star that can morph into the creepiest menace without relying on the usual clichés; instead, utilizing benign body language as the conduits of pure evil. The slightest gesture of a hand sweeping away a few locks of hair, sloppily fallen before his cold dead eyes, registers a grotesque reckoning.
Consider the hyper-suspenseful moment when Kiefer Sutherland’s Jeff Harriman, having been tormented with uncertainty for three long years after the disappearance of his girlfriend, is suddenly confronted by the man who abducted her. Bridges appears in Jeff’s open doorway, immobile and barely breathing, a queer half smile teasing its way across his thick lips, peering from under his heavy lids as he slyly admits, with a distinct note of pride even, that he is the one for whom Jeff has been searching. What follows is a fiery confrontation; a great action sequence expertly staged by Sluzier; Jeff unleashing three years of kinematic anxiety, fear and unmitigated rage; knocking Barney senseless, pummeling and pushing him down a flight of stairs. Through it all, Bridges’ Barney never resists. In fact, he seems to embrace taking his lumps with a quietly masochistic pleasure for experiencing such pain. This makes him all the more unnerving and creepy. One intuitively senses Barney would likely welcome a brutal death as the greatest thrill of his lifetime. It’s a deliriously perverse moment; one of many mounted by Sluzier throughout the latter half of the story. As good as Sutherland’s performance is, as the weak-kneed, emotionally overwrought, obsessive searcher for the truth (and, make no mistake – it is very fine, indeed), it pales to Bridges utterly mental and distinguishingly ghoulish portrait of this mama’s boy cum serial killer.
The Vanishing also features Sandra Bullock. Only in hindsight does Bullock’s cameo as Cousin’s naïve and ill-fated sacrificial lamb, Diane Shaver take on a Hitchcockian flavoring; her hasty and unexpected dispatch less than twenty minutes into the story akin to the infamous shower slaughter of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho (1960). Yet, Bullock was hardly a star when The Vanishing premiered; her previous filmic roles brief and undistinguished, her reoccurring part on TV’s version of Mike Nichol’s classic comedy, Working Girl (1990), not enough to bring her world-wide notoriety. Yet, in The Vanishing, Bullock becomes so much more than just some pretty face perpetually haunting Jeff’s memory. Indeed, she exhibits the first glints of star quality, memorable and radiating unexpected warmth and sincerity. We care – with a looming sense of dread – when Diane goes missing, and feel our hearts collectively sink when director, Sluizer cuts from a panged Jeff to a B&W mug shot of Diane staring back at us from a public forum bulletin board, revealing the passage of three long years since her disappearance.   
I have thus far avoided discussing Nancy Travis in the pivotal role, as the hard-drinking/fast-talking truck stop waitress, Rita Baker; not, in any way, to diminish her contribution to the film (for it remains monumentally impressive) but rather to illustrate the overall negative response to her character, misperceived by the critics as something of an interloper in this remake. There is no counterpart to Rita Baker in Spoorloos. Sluizer has concocted her wholesale for The Vanishing. But she is far more than Jeff’s new ‘love interest’ (the predictably expected appendage no Hollywood movie can resist, much less survive without). Travis’ Rita keeps the film’s momentum and tempo on an even keel in the middle act. But she turbo-charges the impetus for the climactic showdown between Barney and Rita: the latter, just sly enough to outfox the fox himself. It’s a fascinating confrontation; Travis giving us the impassioned, proletariat gut reaction to her more academically sterile counterpart; lying to Barney about having abducted his daughter, Denise (Maggie Linderman) for a quid pro quo exchange, thus ingeniously provoking Barney to lose his usual cool and prove to us that his analytic calculations and book-learnt knowledge are no match for Rita’s street smarts.   
Travis ought to have risen to bona fide star status after The Vanishing. She gives the part her absolute all. There’s grassroots vivacity at play in Rita’s frequently frustrated/repeatedly wounded affections; enough defiance to challenge Jeff to see things her way. “Let it go” Rita repeatedly tells him; good advice he is unable – or perhaps, unwilling – to heed, until it is far too late for either of them to turn back. But while Jeff’s interests are irrefutably ‘invested’ (he was, and arguably, remains desperately in love with Diane…or at least, the memory of her), Rita’s doggedness, after Jeff has mysteriously disappeared, is predicated on a more visceral belief in the man she so obviously is willing to fight for tooth and nail; clawing her way through shallow mud and clubbing Barney over the head with a wooden plank. The difference is worth noting. Jeff is obsessed with a ghost. Rita is in love with a man.
The Vanishing opens with Barney’s arrival at the isolated summer house, unkempt and situated in dense foliage, facing a sleeping and perpetually misty lagoon. It is miles to the nearest neighbor, although Barney does test his theory about sound carrying in the stillness of the night by asking a neighbor passing by in a canoe if he heard a young girl screaming the night before. Those screams were actually Denise’s after Barney deliberately littered their picnic basket with live spiders. Director, Sluizer shows us the meticulous planning necessary to carry out the perfect abduction. It’s more than a house in the woods; Barney testing the strength of chloroform on himself first, and with a stopwatch. He knows exactly how long his victim will be unconscious. He even practices his technique, starting with his story to lure a young woman into his car. Now, it’s time to choose the perfect victim. Alas, his timing is off; also his choice of a crowded city street to make his first attempt. It doesn’t work. But then Barney’s unsuspecting wife, Helene (Lisa Eichhorn) and Denise inadvertently give him the kernel of a fresh idea to pursue; presenting him with a retrospective booklet on his childhood for his birthday. In the scrapbook there is a photo of Barney when he was little more than nine, wearing a brace to support his broken arm. Barney recalls an experiment he conducted in his youth, leaping from the safety of his second story window to see what it would feel like and breaking his arm in the fall. It dons on Barney that women are suckers for men who have been physically weakened.
Even so, and having picked out a remote gas station/convenience store and truck stop along the highway as his stalking port of call, Barney is unable to go through with his capture of a young woman (Allison Barcott) he has lured under the pretext to open his glove compartment with a barrette. He will not make the same mistake twice. On his next attempt, Barney meets Diane coming out of the woman’s restroom at the convenience store. She asks him to make change for a crumpled dollar the machine will not accept and he strikes up a seemingly innocuous conversation about the bracelet on his wrist, shaped like the mathematical symbol for infinity. Barney lies to Diane that he is the wholesale distributor for the bracelet when it was actually a gift given to him by Denise. Diane expresses interest in getting one for Jeff, who is waiting for her in the car out front. Only a few moments earlier, the two had quarreled badly, but had also lovingly reconciled their differences; enough for Diane to take the keys to his car in exchange for offering to buy him a beer. Barney lures Diane around the back of the store with the promise of selling her a bracelet. Instead, he drugs and carries her off to the cabin.
Without his keys, Jeff wanders the concourse, inquiring to passersby if they have seen Diane. Remarkably, no one has. Even the police officer contacted to make a report doesn’t seem to think much of Jeff’s franticness. Whether Jeff chooses to acknowledge it or not, Diane is gone forever. Three long years pass. Jeff remains vigilante, plastering photos and ads all over the nearby town, losing his job as a copy writer and becoming obsessed to find out what happened to Diane. Eventually, the strain wears him down. Stopping at a nearby truck stop, Jeff is befriended by Rita who offers him a warm glass of milk in lieu of coffee and then a chance to sleep on a cot in the backroom. She keeps a vigil over him too and Jeff is rather touched by her concern. Rita’s more jaded friend and fellow waitress, Lynn (Park Overall) doesn’t think much of getting involved with this ‘stray dog’, but Rita is obviously attracted to Jeff. Before long he moves her into his nearby apartment and the two become lovers.
All, however, does not go according to plan. Jeff submits a manuscript for a novel he’s written to a publisher, Arthur Bernard (George Hearn) who turns it down. While the content is not to his liking, Art can certainly recognize a solid new talent. Familiar with the particulars of Jeff’s search for Diane, Arthur encourages Jeff to write a book based on his quest. Jeff declines, but shortly thereafter lies to Rita about having to go out of town for a National Guard’s reservist’s meeting. Actually, he’s set up a veritable command post at a nearby motel room to pursue his investigation. Rita becomes suspicious over Jeff’s frequent absences, eventually cracking the encryption to his computer files and discovering just how obsessed he still is with Diane’s disappearance. She gives Jeff and ultimatum. Jeff agrees to retire his search, but is shortly thereafter contacted by a mysterious letter sent to him by Barney who has seen Jeff on a locally syndicated talk show.
Rita thinks the letter is a sick ploy by someone merely playing tricks. She tells Jeff he must choose between contacting the sender or forgetting about Diane and making a sincere attempt to start a new life together with her. Jeff chooses the letter and Rita storms off to be comforted by Lynn at the local billiard hall. Not long thereafter, while beginning to record over his automated telephone answering machine message, Jeff encounters Barney who makes no effort to camouflage the purpose of his visit. Unable to control his anger, Jeff attacks Barney; the assault witnessed by Miss Carmichael (Lynn Hamilton); a dotty neighbor. In the meantime, Rita has a change of heart and tries to telephone Jeff. She hears Barney’s voice in the background on the tape and realizes Jeff is in grave danger.
In the meantime, Barney has convinced Jeff the only way he will ever truly know what has become of Diane is to experience the same set of circumstances she did on that fateful afternoon. Struggling to justify the insanity of this exercise, Jeff is worn down by Barney’s sinisterly calming explanation of his own childhood; Barney telling Jeff he has nothing and no one to care for; that his whole life is an endless, senseless void – a veritable nightmare without end – unless he views himself as Diane’s salvation. Barney urges Jeff to drink a deliberately spiked coffee, promising all will be revealed to him if and when he awakens on the other end of its hallucinogenic trip. True to his word, the coffee is not poisoned but laced with a powerful narcotic that knocks Jeff out for the duration of their car trip. Alas, when he awakens, Jeff discovers he has been buried alive in a shallow grave near the summer house, his screams unheard and likely to remain so.
This is where Spoorloos ended. But Sluizer has an even more harrowing finale prepared for The Vanishing. Keeping her wits about her, Rita traces Barney to his home, discovering Denise unsuspectingly sneaking off to meet her boyfriend at the amusement park. Denise, who has her own misguided teenage suspicions about her father having an affair and using the cabin for clandestine rendezvous, inquires whether Rita is his mistress. Seizing upon the opportunity, Rita plays along and gets Denise to provide her with directions to the summer house, dropping Denise off at the amusement park before heading out to the lake where she is almost immediately confronted by Barney. He chases her through the forest. But Rita manages to momentarily elude him before being cornered inside the cabin. Barney slyly plays the same set of rules for Rita. Drink the drugged coffee to discover what’s become of Jeff. But Rita is smarter; having quietly observed Barney’s muddy shoes and socks and the presence of a shovel with fresh dirt on it near the front porch. She tells Barney a lie; that she is holding Denise hostage at an undisclosed location she will reveal to him only if he shares with her where Jeff is buried. 
Barney doesn’t really believe Rita until he telephones home and learns from his wife that Denise is not in her bedroom fast asleep. Barney demands to know where his daughter is. But Rita is coy and commanding, eventually knocking Barney unconscious with the shovel and racing off into the woods where she discovers the shallow grave and begins to frantically dig. Just as she has unearthed the makeshift casket, Barney reappears. He overpowers Rita. But Jeff has regained consciousness, beating Barney to death with the shovel. The two depart the summer house with a renewed sense of belonging to one another, unaware Diane’s body is buried only a few short feet away. Not long thereafter, Diane and Jeff have lunch with Arthur. He is still passionate about Jeff committing his real-life ordeal to paper. But Jeff cordially refuses; he and Rita reluctantly turning down a waitress who brings two cups of coffee to the table.
One can either choose to regard the ending of The Vanishing as too convenient or thoroughly satisfying. In reality, it is neither; just a tad too truncated to be salvageable as a fitting conclusion to all the harrowing nonsense gone before it, but not nearly the reckless/feckless implosion critic’s labeled it in 1993. There’s just too much that’s good here – and even a few elemental touches that reign sublime – to dismiss The Vanishing as an outright failure. Here, we must pause and give director, George Sluizer all of the credit and a polite slap on the wrist – perhaps – for tampering with greatness. Like George Lucas’ fatal tinkering with the original Star Wars trilogy, Spoorloos is Sluizer’s magnum opus, given over to a revision it, arguably, did not deserve or even need. Hollywood has always had an insatiable – and thoroughly perplexing affinity for remaking great movies. In some regards, it’s a fool’s errand – the remakes frequently, if not universally, judged as inferior by direct comparison. But in The Vanishing’s case, the critic’s poisoned penned assaults on Sluizer and the movie, as well as the public’s fickleness to judge the picture unfairly on its own merit seems not only unkind, but equally misguided.
The Vanishing is not a bastardization of Spoorloos; rather, a re-envisioning of the elements that made it such a nihilistic instant classic in the first place. While a good many remakes are at the mercy of directors unfamiliar with the ingredients that made the original’s enduring reputation click, The Vanishing greatly benefits from Sluizer’s basic affinity, his great respect, and unquestioningly intimate knowledge of the first film. And Sluizer hasn’t done wrong by the audience this second time around either, so much as he’s given them fresh food for thought and a new heroine to champion. Even as the first movie presents its unrepentantly bleak ‘what if?’ scenario, so too does this re-imagined second bite at the same apple beg for a fresh spate of inquiries. If Sluizer had merely filmed Spoorloos verbatim, but with an all English-speaking cast in substitute, then he would have encountered the old ‘what was the point to that?’ argument from the critics, as in the case of Gus Van Sant’s pointless and near ‘shot for shot’ remake of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1998).
The Vanishing is a valiant effort to retell a story familiar to the foreign market, its premise expanded for the mainstream North American cultural mindset. In some ways, the general premise is better suited for this adaptation. We’re all acquainted with the anonymity of an out-of-the-way truck stop; the way it caters to a diverse cross-section of the population, one of whom just may be the next Ted Bundy. Now, isn’t that a comforting thought? And Sluizer is clever enough to prey upon our moviegoer’s acuity to precede the events about to take place. Thus, we can rail at the screen over Diane’s gullibility to follow Barney back to his car for – of all things – a cheap leather bracelet. We can invest ourselves in the hopelessness of Jeff’s fruitless search for Diane; his desperation so great, he would sacrifice his own life merely to discover the untimely end of the woman whose memory has so obviously possessed him, body and soul. And we can cheer for Rita’s jaded heroine to the rescue; so sly and impassioned, she could think up just the sort of quid pro quo devilry to rattle Barney’s chain and realign the pieces of the puzzle in her favor and to Jeff’s advantage.
No, The Vanishing is neither “misguided” nor “lobotomized” as the critics proclaimed back in 1993. It is, in fact, a compelling roller coaster ride through the darkest recesses of a serial killer’s warped mind. In amusement park terms, the difference between Spoorloos and The Vanishing is that Sluizer chose to punctuate the futility of a life in his original (in essence, ending the ride before the car had come back full circle to the station). The Vanishing brings the audience back to the relative safety of the loading dock (e.i. the place where the normalcy of life was first upset). The film’s epilogue is akin to awakening from a very bad dream, Sluizer allowing us a chance to open our eyes after having witnessed something scary. He refreshes us with a resolution denied in his original masterwork. Does it work? Superficially speaking – yes. Does it entertain? Unquestioningly so. Is it perfect storytelling? Hmmm.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is fairly promising, culled from Fox Home Video elements that have not been given a pristine cleanup. There are a handful of shots that have white specks dotting about and some minor gate weave to boot. But on the whole, however, this is a fairly pleasing 1080p presentation with few caveats or reasons to gripe. The 1.85:1 transfer is particularly hearty in close-ups. Early scenes played out under the opening credits appear ever so slightly softly focused. Contrast is pretty sweet though, as is color fidelity. Flesh tones look very natural and greens, blues and reds pop as they should. Fine detail is wanting in long shots – a genuine shame, since we get some fairly gorgeous cinematography of Seattle. Grain is consistently rendered. There’s substantial depth in exterior daytime scenes; less so in those shot under the cover of night. The Vanishing was original recorded in 2.0 stereo. We get this and a newly remastered 5.1 DTS track. Both are fairly frontal sounding, Jerry Goldsmith’s score more lively and robust in the latter; even better on TT’s usual isolated track option. Alas, it’s the only extra we get, plus the original theatrical trailer.  Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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