A man named Rex (Gene Bervoets) is driving through France with his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege). They’re from the Netherlands and they’re taking their first vacation together. Saskia tells Rex about a strange recurring dream that she’s been having, one where she’s floating through space and she’s on the verge of colliding with someone else. When Rex fails to take her dream seriously, they have a brief argument. It’s the type of argument that every couple has had at one time or another. At the time, it’s serious. Afterwards, it’s something that you laugh about.
When they pull over at a rest stop, Saskia goes into a gas station. She says that she’s only going inside for a few minutes, just so she can pick up two drinks. She should be right back.
She never returns. Rex searches the entire rest area but no one can remember seeing where she might have gone off to. It’s as if she’s vanished off the face of the Earth.
This is how the 1988 Dutch film, The Vanishing, begins. The opening is creepy enough. What’s amazing is that things only get creepier as the story progresses.
Three years pass by. Saskia is never found. Despite the fact that Rex is now dating Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus) and makes it a point to only refer to Saskia as having been a “friend,” he remains obsessed with her disappearance. He continues, for instance, to pay to put up missing posters of her.
Walking through the city, a French chemistry professor named Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) and a friend of his see one of the posters. Raymond’s friend says that Rex should just give up. If Saskia hasn’t been found yet, she’ll never be found. Raymond asks his friend how he would feel if it had been someone close to him who had disappeared. Raymond sympathizes with Rex and wonders who could have abducted Saskia.
Of course, Raymond already knows the answer. As we see in flashback, Raymond is the one who kidnapped Saskia. Raymond Leomorne is a friendly, calm, and always reasonable family man. Once, while he and his family were enjoying a weekend afteroon, he even dove into a river to save a girl from drowning. Raymond, however, has always know that there was something different about him. When he was a child, he once jumped off a balcony just for the experience. Everyone assumed that he had fallen off the balcony because, after all, only a crazy person would actually jump. And Raymond has always been as normal as normal can be….
There’s been a lot of films made about the banality of evil but none capture the concept quite as perfectly as The Vanishing. Even after he reveals the truth about what he’s done, Raymond remains a remarkably reasonable, friendly, and mild fellow. He discusses committing murder in the same tone that someone would use while discussing doing yard work. If anything, the obsessive Rex seems more outwardly unstable than Raymond. While Raymond cheerfully acknowledges that he is a sociopath, Rex insists that he’s not still in love with Saskia. Of course, everyone in the film knows better. Rex remains obsessed with not only Saskia but also the manner of her death. He says that he’s living in the present but he spends his time continually trying to recreate the past.
When Raymond starts sending Rex postcards in which he offers to show him, step-by-step, what happened to Saskia, Rex agrees to meet with him. The majority of the film is simply Rex and Raymond talking to each other while driving through the night. What makes these deceptively low-key scenes especially disturbing is that Raymond doesn’t carry a gun or any other weapon. Rex could probably subdue him at any minute and take him to the police. Even after Rex has his answers, he continues to listen to Raymond. He continues to passively allow Raymond to control every minute of their story, all so he can try to recreate the day the Saskia vanished and hopefully find a different ending to their trip. It all leads to a shocking final twist and one of the most haunting finales in cinematic history.
The Vanishing is a horror film that’s effective specifically because it doesn’t takes place in a fantasy world or feature any imaginary monsters. It takes place in the real world and its monster is all too real. It plays out with the power of a nightmare. Much like Saskia’s dream about being in the egg, The Vanishing moves like an unstoppable force of dread. It’s a frightening film but it’s also not one that you can look away from.