Dutch thriller The Vanishing (1988) is widely considered to be one of the scariest films of all time. Director George Sluizer says Stanley Kubrick called him after seeing The Vanishing to say that it was the scariest film Kubrick had ever seen and that he had seen it ten times. A Washington Post reviewer noted that one reason the film is so scary is that it doesn’t rely on tropes or jump scares, saying it is “refreshingly free of manipulative scenes involving running bath water, jagged-edge cutlery and bunnies in the saucepan.” In 2022, The Vanishing held an impressive 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Dutch title of the film is Spoorloos, which means Without a Trace. It follows two young people, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), on a road trip to their biking holiday in France. As they drive, Saskia tells Rex about a recurring dream of a mysterious golden egg she had again the previous night. The couple bicker when they run out of gas but quickly make up. When they arrive at a gas station, the two bury coins at the base of a tree to signify their friendship, and Rex promises he will always be there for Saskia.
Warning: spoilers beyond this point.
The Vanishing plot summary:
At the gas station, Saskia goes inside to get some beverages while Rex waits outside. What should have been a few minutes turns into hours as Saskia seems to have disappeared into thin air. A frantic Rex stays at the gas station all night looking for clues about what could have happened to Saskia.
The film then switches to show another character, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a French chemistry professor and family man who knows that he is a sociopath and plans to abduct a woman to prove that he is “the ultimate evil.” At an isolated country home, Raymond practices inviting women into his car and subduing them with chloroform. After a few failed kidnapping attempts, Raymond realizes he needs to appear more vulnerable, so he fashions a fake cast and sling (similar to how Ted Bundy was able to lure women into his car).
Three years after Saskia’s kidnapping, Rex has kept his promise to never abandon her and is still desperately searching for clues. Over the years, Raymond has contacted Rex five times saying he knows where Saskia is and to arrange a meeting, but each time he does not show up to the meeting. After having his own dream about the mysterious golden egg, Rex goes on TV to beg for information about Saskia.
The Vanishing ending:
Raymond seeks out Rex and confesses to kidnapping Saskia but tells Rex he will not say what happened to her, she will only show him. Desperate to know the truth, Rex drinks coffee he knows is laced with a sleeping pill and agrees to allow Raymond to show him what he did to Saskia. Rex awakens inside a coffin as Raymond buries him alive. Using a lighter to look around and see the box he is being buried in, Rex realizes that the flame is the mysterious golden egg both he and Saskia had dreamed about. The dream was a premonition of their death.
The Vanishing facts and trivia:
1. Tim Krabbé adapted the script from his 1984 novella The Golden Egg. After the film’s success, the title was changed in later publications to The Vanishing. Director George Sluizer made two major changes from Krabbé’s final script: Additional flashback scenes were added to flesh out the character’s personalities, and the final scenes with Rex and Raymond were extended.
2. Krabbé based his novella on a true story. He once read a story in a newspaper about a woman who was traveling by bus and disappeared on a rest stop when she got off the bus to buy gum at a gas station. The real-life story has a happy ending. It turns out the woman didn’t disappear at all — she got on the wrong bus and was reunited with her family the following day.
3. The film is also based on an urban legend called “The Vanishing Hotel Room.” The story goes that a mother and daughter are visiting Paris. When they arrive, the mother is tired from traveling and decides to stay in the hotel room while the daughter goes sightseeing. However, when the daughter returns, her mother has vanished and no one at the hotel remembers seeing her.
4. During the scene where Raymond subdues Saskia with chloroform, actor Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu wanted it to look real, so he grabbed Johanna ter Steege so tightly the actress had a panic attack.
5. It was the Dutch submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988, and when the Academy rejected the nomination because the film also contains a lot of French dialogue, the Dutch declined to submit another film in its place.
6. The French title is L’Homme Qui Voulait Savoir, which means The Man Who Wanted to Know.
7. The American title, The Vanishing, is Sluizer’s nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Supposedly Sluizer asked Kubrick if The Vanishing was scarier than The Shining, and Kubrick said yes.
Sluizer filmed an alternate ending where police catch Raymond. This ending was thought to be inferior and was never released.
8. In 2010, it was adapted into a radio play for BBC Radio 4.
9. An American remake was made in 1993. Jeff Bridges plays the villain, and Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock play the traveling couple. Despite this all-star cast the movie was poorly received, especially because the ending was changed to be “happier.” Fans and critics alike universally prefer the Dutch original.