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‘The Vanishing’ (U.S.) (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1993

Last year, a Franco-Dutch movie called "The Vanishing" (a k a "Spoorloos") sent chills through Washington audiences. A mystery-thriller, it tied knots in your intestines until its final, horrifying moment. In it, a Dutch tourist was mysteriously separated from his girlfriend at a gas station in France. After three years of obsessive searching -- with desperate public appeals to an unknown perpetrator -- he finally discovered her haunting fate.

Ah, but that 1988 movie wasn't the final fate. Something far more ominous has now emerged: an American remake. Prepare yourself for "The Vanishing," starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges. It's the same movie, only completely different. It follows the same plot, except where it changes everything. To add insult to originality, director George Sluizer (who made the first movie) participates in this tacky exercise.

In the new version, set in Seattle, Bridges is a peculiar family man who's busy rebuilding an out-of-the-way log cabin. A sinister goofball, he speaks in a hard-to-place accent, his hair disheveled and his mouth never quite closed. He's practicing for something nefarious because he sets a stopwatch, pours chloroform into a handkerchief and places it over his face. Now meet Sutherland and girlfriend Sandra Bullock, bickering their way from Seattle to Mount St. Helens. Stopping at a gas station, Bullock goes into the food store for a pit stop and soda. She never returns.

The remainder of the movie is about Sutherland's desperate bid to trace her or find out what happened. Three years later, he's still searching, putting up posters, even appearing on talk shows. When he meets waitress Nancy Travis, a new romance begins. But Sutherland can't purge his obsession. Exasperated, Travis gives him an ultimatum. At the same time, Sutherland discovers what could be a breakthrough in the mystery. Because of the potency of the 1988 script, the American film can't help having certain moments of watchable suspense. But it ain't just Sandra Bullock that's missing. Screenwriter Todd Graff makes an inept, quasi-formulaic rehash of everything.

He duplicates many of the original scenes (particularly the significant gas station ones), but does so mechanically. He jettisons most of the subtleties that made the first film so memorable. He doesn't get the real significance of a mountain tunnel Sutherland and Bullock find themselves stranded in. He omits a recurring dream about eggs that Bullock should have had. Instead of making the Bridges character one of delicate, menacing shadings, he turns him into the kind of '90s psycho-nut you find lurking in the final 20 minutes of any American thriller, from "Jagged Edge" to "Body of Evidence."

As for that macabre ending in the 1988 film, Graff evidently decided it was far too challenging for us to have to undergo again.

At one climactic point, Bridges tells Sutherland to pay close attention to an anecdote he's relating because "the devil is in the details." Had Sluizer and Graff taken this advice, they might have had a movie. Actually, their best advice would have been to leave this classic alone. There is good news for movie fans, however. "The Vanishing" -- the good version, that is -- is widely available in video stores. It's just sitting there on the shelves, lying in wait for you.

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