FILM / Now you see it, now you don't: Adam Mars-Jones reviews George Sluizer's second stab at The Vanishing

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The Independent Culture
CURIOSITY, which brings us to the cinema in the first place, is rarely explored in the films that we see there. A recent exception was the Dutch director George Sluizer's The Vanishing, a coldly brilliant and formally rich horror film, in which a man whose girlfriend inexplicably disappeared became obsessed with the need to know what happened to her. This need to know, which the audience came to share, was shown nevertheless not to be a form of love, nor even an over-compensation for guilt (though the hero had had a row with her immediately before the disappearance) but a perverse mental state in its own right.

There was even a philosophical strand to the story. When after three years the man responsible for the disappearance contacted the hero, he offered a stark choice: either remain in ignorance forever, or go through everything that the missing woman went through. Ignorance or irreversible experience - the film recognised no comfortable middle category of second-hand knowledge. The first Vanishing had an extraordinary delayed effect on its audiences, when the hero made his choice.

Now Sluizer has remade the film in English with American stars (Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland) and with a script rejigged by Todd Graff. It isn't unusual for foreign language successes to be re-tooled for American audiences, but it is odd for the same director to do the job. Given that the new film is in every way less interesting than the original, Sluizer stands accused of having knowingly hamstrung a thoroughbred, of destroying his integrity for money.

And yet the decisions behind the remake make perfect sense in context. The basic situation has been taken in a quite new direction suited to its new marketplace. Any halfway competent studio executive could have emerged from a screening of the original film with some incisive notes.

Fate doesn't play in the US. What's the point of calling yourself The New World if you're going to buy into the stalest baggage of the Old? Second chances and happy endings, the right and duty to throw off the roles and schemes prescribed for you, are practically guaranteed by the Constitution. There is an American minority interested in themes of knowledge and fatedness, but it's the same minority that is interested in European art films. These folks will have seen the first movie already. Why even try to please them?

Thrills not chills. Exorcism not haunting. Too much of the original Vanishing took place in people's heads. You had to put some work in to understand what was happening. That's fine, if you want that. But the trouble was that the first film's emotions only began to kick in at the end. Audiences were still affected when they left the cinema, it took them hours to shake off their mood, which most people don't enjoy. Much better to work through the same feelings at a much faster rate, so they are all burned off by the final credits. The original film was a depressive experience, not good for the mental health, while the remake, with its all-action last half-hour, is a session of mild vicarious aerobics. If there was a single stunt man on the original film, he had a lot of free time. The remake employed nine.

Cut those IQs. American audiences don't like to watch intellectuals, and American actors don't like to play them. In the original film, the hero and the villain were equally cerebral and cold. Yes, that was the whole balance and beauty of the movie, but nobody loves a smart-ass. Jeff can put on a bit of an accent now and then, and Kiefer's character can be trying to write a novel, but that's as far as it should go in the egghead stakes. Maybe Jeff could sing a bit of a Barry Manilow song while he's rehearsing his diabolical plan. That way, when the villain tells the good guy that they're kindred spirits, it's just like the bit in the James Bond film when the bad guy tells Bond he's a worthy opponent. It's not got a nasty aftertaste.

Woman as victim gets us into trouble. In Europe, you can have a woman be abducted and never heard from again without anyone worrying about her gender. In the US you have to be careful, or people will say you're treating women as disposable objects. The remake of The Vanishing has to abide by the premiss of the original, but builds up the second female lead - Rita (Nancy Travis), the gutsy waitress who tries to cure the hero of his obsession - until she is the strongest character in the film. Rita is a fighter. She just won't let go. The nearest this comes to being interesting is the suggestion that women as a sex find it easier to live with uncertainty than men do.

And so, quite properly, the essence of the first film, its bleakness and beauty, vanishes without trace. Sluizer has done it once, why should he repeat himself? It's true that he tries to recapitulate a little of the original's metaphysical suggestiveness with a motif of the figure of eight on its side that represents infinity in mathematics. The only actually haunting image in the new film is one that could come from the first, when the villain drops a fly into a solution as a demonstration to his chemistry class, where it sets off a feathery crystallisation of great, implacable elegance.

Otherwise the film is only recommended to those who are curious about how something with a 15 certificate could be less nightmarish than the original, which because it dealt in implication and atmosphere rather than explicit representation, received a 12.