Best Horror of the 90s: Spoorloos

spoorloos1988Spoorloos (a.k.a. The Vanishing) is about two long tunnels. One has a light and a girl at the end. The other has just more darkness. The movie is about two people being separated – and two people brought together – by the same crime, one that was committed to prove free will. For two men, one man’s question is the other man’s answer. Both of them have their own particular hubris.

Vacationing in France, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and his wife/friend Saskia1 (Johanna ter Stege) stop at a gas station/minimart. Saskia goes to buy some drinks, and she never comes back. For the next three years, Saskia’s disappearance is Rex’s obsession. He makes posters of her, he goes on TV begging for the person who took her to come forward, and he gets postcards from someone who claims to be the kidnapper – someone who arranges meetings and doesn’t show up.

Raymond Lemorne sends the postcards, and indeed, he is the kidnapper. He calls himself a sociopath – a man without conscience. After his daughter praises him for saving a drowning girl, he becomes worried that the rescue would not be heroic unless he was capable of evil. So he devises a kidnapping to test his free will. He is intelligent, resourceful, clever, and inventive. He is also a good family man. If you had to pick one of these men to be your friend, most of us would pick the Frenchman over the Dutchman.

Thus, The Vanishing springs from one of the most important and overlooked rules of the horror/suspense film: if the story follows the antagonist, he has to be more sympathetic and likable than the protagonist. Though odd, Norman Bates is much more interesting and charming than Sam Loomis, and we like Bob Rusk more than we like Richard Blaney2. In this film, Lemorne has imagination. Rex does not.

The dogged pursuit of Saskia and her kidnapper has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with knowledge: Rex admits that finding Saskia dead would be more of a relief than not finding her at all. When he and Lemorne come face to face, he can only think to beat him up, and the first question is, “Did you rape her?”

There is only one moment that shows Rex thinking outside of his limited sphere, and that’s when he goes on vacation to the same place he and Saskia went. As he walks up the path to the vacation house, a car passes, and both he and Saskia are in it. He runs after the car, but of course he cannot catch up. His subsequent breakdown (of a sort) shows his real purpose: to recapture an old fate and reclaim the trajectory of a life that is no longer his. Lemorne’s insistence on proving his free will has robbed Rex of his own.

Lemorne’s portrayal makes the film more than a simple crime story or drama. He is a solid middle-class citizen. There are no psychotic tics or funny accents, no overt passion or anything to indicate this man is empty. He plans the kidnapping well, he takes notes, and he proceeds with an alarming coldness. Picking up his daughter from school, he runs through the routine for picking up the victim. (A gift from the daughter is used to lure Saskia into the car.) Because his evil is the result of nonchalant calculation, Lemorne is one of the most frightening characters in cinema. He is more interested than obsessed.

Horror is born in the realization that Lemorne is an effective man. He can get things done and change plans when he has to. In any other context he would be a hero. In comparison, Rex flails at life and rages at the things he cannot change. He doesn’t have the imagination to change the film’s inevitable conclusion. Lemorne is an evil genius. He has made all the preparations, and his plans aren’t thwarted at the end.

In most horror films there is a relationship between two characters that are related but diametrically opposed. The most instructive comparison to The Vanishing is the maligned horror film, The Hitcher. Here, C. Thomas Howell runs afoul of Rutger Hauer, who follows him and murders people around him. Howell is unharmed, but he can’t escape. Like Rex, he is in a hell made by another man.

Both films are about a journey interrupted, and how the destination can’t be reached. The protagonists are in limbo: the trajectory of life has ended and they cannot reach the appointed end. The Hitcher is bloody, violent, and monstrous – a medieval hell. Only the confrontation between Hauer and Howell can bring things to an end, since they are inextricably linked. Lemorne and Rex are linked, too, and only by submission to Lemorne can Rex get his satisfaction.

I bring up The Hitcher because it makes explicit the issue that The Vanishing keeps under its hat. In Rex’s life, Lemorne is a subtly supernatural force. He is the complete arbiter of Rex’s fate, just as the Hitcher controls Howell’s. By asserting free will, he has taken over the destiny-making power of God.

The heart of horror is religious because, to have any sort of effect, it has to speak to a part of us that is greater than our physical beings. Films like Friday The 13th (or the average Halloween rip-off) are a pornographization3 of horror since they focus on violence and eliminate the spiritual: Mrs. Voorhees may kill, but she is not frightening. Michael Myers is frightening because he has given up humanity and become an animal – he doesn’t just kill, he has destroyed the thing in himself that has the potential to be human.

The Vanishing moves in the opposite direction. Lemorne decides he is God, and does Godlike things. Maybe this is because Rex is weak, but Lemorne’s deliberation and perceptiveness can’t be ignored. The horror of this brilliant, measured and intelligent film is this: that our free will can be taken away by someone who wants to; that one man’s gift is another man’s curse; and that “God” (as deity or what-have-you) may not like us, and He may act on that dislike.

1The translation has it both ways – friend and wife. It doesn’t make much difference, but the discrepancy should be noted.

2Blaney and Rush are characters in Frenzy, the last great film Hitchcock made.

3Pornography means (and should only mean) media that exists for specific sexual gratification. However, this meaning has been diluted and the word takes up a sort of half-life between “gratuitous” and “degrading.” So, in using the word here, I assist in its demise as a specific tool. Sorry.

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