The essentials of the plot don't sound terribly interesting or original on paper. Rex Hofman and Saskia Wagter are a young Dutch couple, cavorting around the French countryside with bicycles in tow. After a rather nasty situation where Rex leaves Saskia alone in a lengthy darkened tunnel in pursuit of gasoline, the two stop at a convenience store and relax a bit. Their argument long since smoothed over, Saskia offers to grab her love a beer, and Rex patiently waits outside for her return...and waits...and waits... A half-hour passes, and with no Saskia in sight, Rex frantically seeking help from everyone within earshot. No one takes his concerns seriously, dismissing the disappearance as a lover's quarrel, though Rex refuses to clutch onto that seemingly obvious answer. Obsessed with his quest, Rex spends the next three years feverishly searching, putting up numerous posters and making appearances on local talk shows, hellbent on uncovering answers wherever they may lie. His tunnel vision is more than his new love can stand, and just as the overwrought Rex seems on the verge of snapping, his torment may be at an end. His lover's assailant, who has stayed in constant and increasingly close contact with Rex, reveals himself, offering Rex the opportunity to discover Saskia's fate. The catch? Rex has to undergo exactly what Saskia endured or spend the rest of his life dealing with the uncertainty.
The 1993 remake of The Vanishing is almost universally reviled, though I didn't have nearly as negative an impression as most when I rented it years ago. Having this Criterion release in my hands now, I sorely wish I hadn't bothered with Sluizer's Americanized version. Most of the twists and turns in the original are duplicated, though to a far inferior extent, in the remake, which made it a bit more difficult for me to appreciate the ingenuity and more distinguished craftsmanship in Sluizer's first attempt at bringing this story to the silver screen. The majority of suspense films, particularly those of the past decade, follow the same hackneyed structure -- some lovely young lady is brtually murdered or spirited far away, her relentlessly pursued boyfriend/husband seeks the truth, numerous red herrings are tossed out to throw our easily misled hero off the trail, and the culprit's identity is revealed moments before a climatic battle resulting in the villain's gruesome and laughably over-the-top demise. The Vanishing tosses those conventions aside. The audience knows from the get-go who's responsible, and not because of bad storytelling. "Who?" rarely turns out to be as compelling a question as "how?" or "why?", and this is where the mystery lies. The linear unfolding so prevalent in its genre brethren is similarly eschewed, and though The Vanishing plays loose with time and various events, it never comes in the form of cornball flashbacks or a fade to a three-minute clip shortly before the sociopath gets his comeuppance. The film also isn't bogged down by the need for the sort of exceedingly happy Hollywood ending that spoiled its 1993 revisioning. The Vanishing is a brilliant, well-crafted psychological thriller in the truest sense, and its presentation on DVD from Criterion is nearly as free of flaws as the film itself.
Video: A couple weeks back, a member of DVD Talk posted a pair of screen caps comparing and contrasting the new Criterion release with the full-frame DVD from Fox Lorber. The differences between the two teeter on night-and-day, absolutely worthy of a repurchase by owners of the previous disc. Unfortunately, as I write this, those comparative images are gone, or else I'd have reproduced them here. I suppose you're stuck taking my word for it that the Criterion disc offers a remarkable amount of additional detail, as well as quite a bit of information on each side of the image. The source material used for this transfer, a 35mm low-contrast print, is in absolutely immaculate condition, with nary a flaw to be found. Even the presence of tiny flecks of dust is kept to a bare minimum, only recognizable for all of a few seconds near the end of the film, and even then not to any distracting extent. No print flaws, edge haloing, or compression artifacts were noticeable in the slightest, and the level of grain is appropriate and entirely unintrusive. Blacks are deep and inky, and the subdued color palette, with a handful of brief exceptions, seems to be an accurate reproduction. The level of detail is remarkable, a vast improvement over the soft, muddy, washed-out appearance of the Fox Lorber release.
Audio: The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is driven almost entirely by dialogue, so there's little need for the roar of a subwoofer or numerous split-surround effects. As a mono track, it's perfectly serviceable, with no hiss or distortion whatsoever. Sounds are perfectly balanced, with the keyboard-heavy score and various effects never intruding on conversations and the like. Though dialogue is in both Dutch and French, there are thankfully no burned-in subtitles to distract from the optional English player-generated subs.
Supplements: The only extra on the DVD itself is a subtitled full-frame trailer, though an insert with a brief essay is included with the disc.
Conclusion: Though it's trite to compare modern suspense films to Hitchcock's impressive body of work, it's almost unavoidable in the case of The Vanishing. Though light on the sort of supplemental material on which Criterion has built its reputation, the film itself, bolstered with a stunning visual presentation and a respectable mono track, are far more than worth the $25 or so you're likely to pay for this disc online. Highly recommended.