'Vanishing': Second time around, director stumbles

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August 13, 1993|By Scott Hettrick

THE VANISHING

(FoxVideo, $94.98, rated R, 1993)

This American remake of the 1988 Dutch film is quite a puzzling affair.

Like many Americanized stories, it lacks subtlety and adds stereotypical characters as if American audiences cannot find enjoyment in anything out of the ordinary.

But that's not what's puzzling. What's almost incomprehensible is that the thriller was directed by George Sluizer, the same man who directed the original (available on the Fox Lorber video label).

Both films are nearly identical in their setup; a young man, Jeff, and his girlfriend, Diane (Keifer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock in the new one), pull into a gas station while on vacation. Jeff waits behind as Diane goes inside. But Diane never returns. In fact, she has seemingly disappeared without a trace. Jeff frantically questions everyone at the station and calls the police, but it's no good. She's gone.

The audience has an idea who is behind her disappearance, having watched a strange character named Barney (Jeff Bridges) meticulously rehearse a random abduction with a bottle of chloroform and a hankie.

Cut to three years later. Jeff's obsession with finding Diane has ,, led to appearances on talk shows, which has brought him to the attention of Barney. Barney is now intrigued by Jeff's susceptibility and decides to see if Jeff will voluntarily subject himself to the same experience as Diane.

This is where the two films diverge wildly.

In the original, the rest of the film focuses on the chilling cat-and-mouse game between the abductor and the boyfriend. The abductor, who seems otherwise completely normal, takes the boyfriend and the audience on a verbal ride through his haunting psyche, during which we learn that, just like the time he jumped off a balcony when he was a child just to see what would happen, he committed this crime simply as a lark, to see if he could do it.

Unlike typical psycho-killers, this man is compelling because he does not seem the least bit evil. In fact, it's completely plausible that the girl was released shortly after the abduction and simply used the opportunity to start a new life (she had just had a fight with her boyfriend).

Although it becomes apparent in the original that this isn't the case, the film ends with many well-executed ambiguities, leaving the viewer completely unsettled.

Although the Barney character in the new version describes a similar background and motivation, Mr. Bridges' characterization of him as a spacey, fringe lunatic with an unidentifiable accent is so over the top that he is immediately unlikable, which takes away the primary fascination.

Worse, the new film adds a subsequent love interest for Jeff, who comes to the rescue in a ridiculously contrived ending right out of "Halloween" and "Fatal Attraction," where people who were thought dead keep popping up and hitting others in the face with shovels.

One would have hoped for more from a director who has already proven how to do it intelligently.

WATCH IT

(Skouras/Paramount, priced for rental, rated R, 1993)

Once in a while you stumble upon a film that you'd never heard of that makes you wonder why. 'Watch It" is certainly not the best film of the year, but it deserves more notice than most major releases.

This is a rare and satisfying marriage of witty writing and intelligent acting.

Peter Gallagher stars as an unsettled, unemployed young man who returns to his childhood home, which is now occupied by three bachelors, one of whom is his adopted brother (Jon Tenney) with whom he hopes to reconcile a long-standing feud.

Of course the reconciliation is immediately put in jeopardy when Mr. Gallagher's character falls in love with the girl (Suzy Amis) who has just dumped his brother.

Meanwhile, the most obnoxious and crass of the roomies (John McGinley) is resisting what is rapidly becoming his most serious challenge to bachelorhood with a woman (Cynthia Stevenson) who is amazingly tolerant of his boorish behavior.

Like other fine relationship movies, such as "About Last Night . . . " and "Head Over Heels," this one is filled with plenty of comedy, mostly revolving around the highly developed pranks the roomies play on each other (hence, the title).

There are many memorable lines throughout, such as Mr. Gallagher's response when asked by Ms. Amis why all men are jerks: "That's a closely guarded secret," he says. "I could get in a lot of trouble if I told you." In fact, the chemistry between these two actors is absolutely electric, particularly when Ms. Amis shows up unexpectedly at a baseball game and sits down beside him. No doubt many single men will use the scene as an example of the perfect woman.

Most satisfying is that the intelligence and level of credibility never flags as the film switches from comedy to drama and from the boy-girl relationships to the interplay of the roomies, whose lives have suddenly become much more complex.

+ Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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