Big-budget 'Vanishing' a mere shadow of its former frightening self

February 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Last year, Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer made a tight, nasty little venom strike of a movie called "The Vanishing." It was bad news for cats and ardent young men: it told how curiosity always killed them.

The movie was an astringent art house success par excellence. That means that because of its brilliant reviews, it was seen by at least 400, possibly as many as 432, people worldwide. American producers, knowing a good thing when they saw it, bought the rights to the story.

So now here is the big-budget American version of "The Vanishing," starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland and Nancy Travis. If in the original, curiosity killed the cat, in the remake the cat has become slow, stupid, greedy and boring. He doesn't even die, though he has been spayed.

And who is responsible for the looting of George Sluizer's little ice-cold gem?

The American director, of course.

And who is the director?

George Sluizer, formerly of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and now of Hollywood, U.S.A.

Money talks and you know what walks.

Anyway, the materials of the story remain essentially the same. Only everything else is different. One fine, bright summer afternoon, a handsome young man and his girlfriend stop at a gas station along a well-traveled road in a resort region. (It was southern France; now it's near Seattle, Washington). She goes to the bathroom and he waits and waits . . . and waits.

It soon becomes apparent that she has simply vanished off the face of the earth. Her disappearance completely traumatizes him and reorganizes his life. Three years pass and he's spent a fortune trying to locate her, become a talk-show crank and police goat, undergoing any degradation to unearth her. But he's heard nothing.

Then we meet her abductor, a banal little man with a banal little existence whose inner life is a grotesque delusion. He is the most frightening of all beasts, the monster with a human face. He has a wife and child. He teaches school. But almost as an exercise in intellectual vanity, to validate his own feelings of singularity, he decides to commit a random atrocity and with chilly precision lays the plans.

Afterward, he is fascinated by the young man's tenacity in his quest for the missing woman. Thus he decides on another plan: to gradually ensnare this fellow, using the young man's own obsessive curiosity as a bait.

But if the original triumphed on the icy precision of the plot, the restrained but intense performances of its skilled cast and the ultimate bitter snap of its last second, this "Vanishing" falls down and goes boom on those same issues. To begin with, it has been "improved" in the American idiom. Its original bleak ending was, of course, the point of making the movie: that sense of utter claustrophobia as obsession yielded its ultimate reward. In America -- no way, Sluizer.

Thus the story has been tricked up ludicrously, so that a new major figure intrudes on the action and does in about 10 minutes what it has taken the hero three years to do -- that is, solve the case. A completely unconvincing final few minutes destroys the feeling of intensity as the movie collapses into horror movie stupidities, most of them based on physical impossibilities. The powerful psychological weight of fear has been replaced by the crude spectacle of people getting shovels smashed into their heads.

And the performances are grotesque. Jeff Bridges simply isn't an actor with enough resources to play the monster. Affecting a prissy voice -- almost as if he's imitating Sluizer's Dutch accent -- he never shows the cunning or the perverted intellectuality; he seems like a big, greasy geek. And what can be said of Kiefer Sutherland as the obsessed young seeker of truth except . . . Kiefer Sutherland as an obsessed young seeker of truth? Yeah, right. The new part -- Sutherland's ultimately heroic girlfriend -- is played by Nancy Travis, obviously slumming as a working-class waitress. She's asked to do so much so fast out of no convincing body of logic that she comes to seem quite frazzled; it's an impossible part to play and she plays it impossibly.

PD The only thing that's vanished is a reason for seeing the movie.

"The Vanishing"

Starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.

Directed by George Sluizer.

Released by Twentieth-Century Fox.

Rated R.

... **

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