Sometimes the good guy has to die.
Sometimes the good guy has to die. There is nothing more chilling than being presented with a character to whom you feel genuine sympathy, camaraderie and hope, to watch their lifespan being brutally cut short before your eyes. Hollywood didn’t get this memo. Not only does the good guy always defy the odds (hey! I found a gun in my pocket) but also, he always, always ends up with the girl/job/new house in such a morally superior way that it just becomes icky. I could reel you off a list of films like this which the good ole’ USA has shoved down our throats, but frankly, I’ve forgotten what they were called.
Similarly, there are a plethora of European and International movies which have undergone the infamous Hollywood ‘revamp’, ranging from the blasé to the downright offensive. One such example is George Sluizer’s 1988 mystery/thriller The Vanishing (Spoorloos) in which we follow a young man on a psychologically scarring search for his missing girlfriend who disappeared years earlier. He is tormented by the killer over this time, who eventually reveals himself, promising he will let the young man know what happened if he agrees to go through the same thing. Of course, he submits.
The young man is then given a coffee laced with sedatives only to awaken hours later to find himself buried alive. The three main characters- the young man, his girlfriend and the killer- are portrayed in equal length throughout the film. However, what makes this tale of longing so disturbing is the fact that all three characters are essentially flawed and none of them are portrayed with prejudice. The young couple’s relationship is far from perfect: whilst the young woman is moody and often temperamental, her boyfriend tests this short temper when he really should know better. The killer, meanwhile, has a large, loving family but obviously suffers from some repressed turmoil which he acts out on by, um, killing women. Crucially, these characters are wholly human, their constantly changing behaviours and complex characteristics testament to this fact.
Despite shining international reviews of the original film, Sluizer remade it in English in 1993, casting Keifer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges as the three main roles. The set-up is initially the same: boy and girl on holiday, boy loses girl, killer reveals himself and promises to disclose how he killed his girlfriend, but, hey, let me watch you drink this mystery liquid first. And there the similarities end.
Like the original, the young man now has a new girlfriend. Unlike the original, they stay together. This is the first part which troubles me. No sane woman would stay with a man obviously psychologically damaged by the loss of his previous girlfriend, neither would she stay with a man who actively searches for this girlfriend ‘just to see what happened (she don’t mean nothing else to me, babe)’. However, it is this convenient oversight that allows the young man to live; you see, the new girlfriend happens to work out what has happened, subsequently drug the killer, thus allowing the young man to climb out of his ‘grave’ and knock off the bad guy. It’s the kind of scene which warrants a saxophone solo and a sunset.
The main difference between the two films, though, is that I can remember everything about the original, whilst the remake eludes me. I don’t care that Keifer overcame the bad guy, I don’t care that this is the triumph of the underdog and proof that ‘you can do it’. What I want is humanity, intrigue, and, most of all, thought. The most frightening thing about the killer from Sluizer’s original is that he is essentially vulnerable. You almost feel sorry for the guy. He suffocates beautiful women to validate some sort of insecurity he has about himself.
His role in the woman’s death is passive; he is not strong enough to admit to himself what he is doing. The killer turns his actions into a game; they are suspended from his reality. This characterisation is something which the remake lacks. The killer is evil because that’s what killers are, and the good guy is able to thwart him as, no matter what, good always triumphs evil.
Except, of course, this is not the case. The news alone portrays images of mass suffering on a daily basis, but it has just become a part of our reality. The most chilling thing about the killer is his ability to separate the monstrosities he commits from his everyday existence. He becomes numb to it because he is used to it. Reviewing the 1993 remake, Mark Kermode summarises that whilst ‘the original was about the banality of evil, […] the remake became about the evil of banality’. And that is the most frightening thing of all.