Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988) Review

spoorloos_1988Spoorloos is a 1988 mystery thriller directed by George Sluizer, that is often considered a genre classic, and justifiably so. At first it might be hard to pinpoint why it is so effective and engaging, but its unusual structure and narrative, combined with fine performances from its leads make it a very interesting watch.

Rex and Saskia are a young Dutch couple who are on holiday in France. At some point, they stop at a gas station to rest. Saskia goes to buy some drinks while Rex is waiting in the car, but she never returns. Rex immediately suspects abduction, but he is unable to prove anything or find any clues about what happened to her.

The film is not about who did it. The villain is revealed rather early on, and there is no concern in hiding his identity from the viewer. A lot of time is devoted to develop the character of the villain, who at first seems to be an ordinary family man who, however, is secretly plotting the abduction of a woman. We observe his initial efforts which he carries out with full determination, without any second thoughts about what he is about to do. However, we are not told anything about his motive or his background and, most importantly, about what he intends to do with the woman he abducts.

I believe what makes the film so effective is the fact that it’s careful about what information it reveals and what it withholds from the viewer. The audience is left in the dark concerning the events that transpire at the gas station, and even the fate and current whereabouts of Saskia. It is the lack of this information that drives Rex to madness. He tries to move on with his life, but the uncertainty is always lingering in his mind, degenerating his being into an obsessive search to discover the truth about what happened to Saskia, not even knowing whether she’s alive or dead.

The film’s unusual structure is very effective in evoking feelings of dread and desperation to its audience. We sympathize with Rex, and we even start developing a similarly obsessive need to discover Saskia’s fate. We try to consider what the villain could have done based on what we know about his character, but again, we aren’t given too much information either.

Spoorloos is often categorized as a horror film. This might seem a little baffling at first, since there are no visceral scares, supernatural entities, gore or other elements typical of the horror genre. It is, however, more chilling and harrowing than most conventional horror movies. That is because it plays to the subconscious and identifies with the primal fears of the audience, removing them from their comfort zone. Any avid horror fan will tell you that what you don’t see or know is much scarier than anything you see on the screen. Spoorloos is the kind of film that exploits this to its fullest extent.

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