The Vanishing (1988)
Around mid-2001, a French thriller was released in the States called With a Friend Like Harry. It was a chilling, blackly comic piece that some critics were calling neo-Hitchcock - which is, of course, absurd. Hitchcock was Hitchcock. Speaking both logically and artistically, nobody else could do what he did. Some have come close, however. Harry was a near-miss in that category, but another, earlier film from France (and the Netherlands) almost exactly nails the target.
As The Vanishing opens, we focus on a lightly bickering couple in what looks to be a slightly uncomfortable car. They're on a road trip - they must be, as they're playing incredibly ridiculous games centered around the first letters of words. The sun is shining bright, the world is open to them.
So, it's only natural that our first bit of uneasiness comes when the couple enters a long, dark, and claustrophobic tunnel. Nothing happens, really, just a lover's spat, but the dark mood of that tunnel will set the mood for what's to come later in the film.
Moving ahead a little, the couple's made up, she's gone to get a few drinks for the road... and she never comes back. Now the man, Rex, is forced into a situation of sheer desperation and sickened curiosity while a calm, collected sociopath pulls his strings like a marionette.
On the face of it, the plot seems standard -- a variation on the old theme of the disappearing woman, played so effectively in Hitchcock's own The Lady Vanishes as well as Robert Fuest's And Soon the Darkness.
The difference here is that we don't have to look very far to find the culprit of this dastardly act. He's introduced fairly early on, and a majority of the film's running time is actually a detailed look at his average, middle-class existence. What's chilling is that evil hides under the façade of a beloved family man, who looks and acts just like anybody else. It's telling that the actor behind the role, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, gets first billing.
To say anymore about the film would be a terrible crime on my part. It's not a film meant for spoiling. It's a film to be savored, with each step it takes into darker territory (figuratively and literally).
Straddling the line between superb tragedy in the finest Greek tradition and subtly unnerving horror film, The Vanishing is an absolute must for those who prefer their horror to make a slow ascent up their spine. There's little to recommend here for fans of pure viscera, but the restraint shown by the director will still make your bone marrow turn cold. A masterpiece.