The Vanishing (1988)
The Vanishing (1988)
Image: Supplied

Sometimes there’s not much to link films other than a feeling, atmosphere, mood, style, place or in the case of this week’s selection, a time. The three films by an indie legend from America, a trio of punkish Belgian provocateurs and a quietly terrifying Dutch thriller master are very different in theme, treatment and style — even if two of them are shot in grainy black-and-white.

What they do share is that they were all made between the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the 90s. They point to the explosion of independent cinema that would briefly burn bright before being swallowed up into the mainstream norm.

The films differ distinctly from blockbuster and franchise fare that many still associate as the epitome of the cinema of the period. But they stand out as examples of smart filmmaking and storytelling that continue to enjoy deserved cult-status with cinema lovers now.

The Arthouse Essential: Down By Law — YouTube

No-one has managed to radiate an understatedly hip indifference to mainstream screen expectations as well as cult-favourite director Jim Jarmusch.

This 1986 black-and-white classic features standout and quietly cool performances from troubadour Tom Waits; early Jarmusch favourite collaborator, musician John Lurie and pre-Oscar winning comedian Roberto Benigni. Their three different characters — Lurie’s pimp Jack; Waits’ unemployed radio DJ Zack and Benigni’s Italian tourist Bob — find themselves thrown together by bad luck as they end up sharing a cell in a small-town jail. At first, they’re not exactly friendly to each other but as they learn more about each other, a fragile but close bond develops between them. The film follows them as they eventually escape the confines of jail for a strange but drily humorous journey into the great unknown of rural America.

There may be little in the way of plot and even less on the surface dramatic potential but thanks to the elegantly assured cinematography of the legendary Robby Müller, and natural performances from the central trio, Jarmusch manages to make something subtly engaging and magical from almost nothing.


The Stone Cold Classic: The Vanishing — YouTube

Dutch director George Sluizer’s rightfully acclaimed 1988 adaptation of The Golden Egg, a best-selling book by Dutch journalist Tim Krabbé, remains one of late-20th century cinema’s most creepy and chilling thrillers.

Gene Boervoets stars as Rex Hofman, a young Dutchman whose idyllic road trip vacation through France with his girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) turns into a nightmare when she disappears from a petrol station.

Rex becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Saskia. He launches an international missing-person search that consumes his life, finally leading him to a confrontation with a creepy French chemistry teacher who claims responsibility for her murder. The teacher offers possible answers, but only if Rex will agree to submit to experiencing what Saskia went through in her final moments.

Sluizer’s film uses classic Hitchcock elements of suspense, mystery and a memorably unbearable level of implied psychological horror. It remains the most celebrated and well-known example of the Dutch thriller — a subgenre of European cinema that came to prominence in the 1980s. It features one of the most famously chilling final scenes yet filmed.

Sluizer’s 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jeff Bridges was a flop ruined by the narrative conventions of mainstream American moviemaking. This original is a brilliantly crafted masterclass in the use of cinematic techniques to disquiet and scare without having to show their hand.


The Diamond in the Rough: Man Bites Dog — YouTube

When Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs kicked the US indie film movement into full swing, this similarly in-your-face, bitterly funny, shocking and violent mockumentary became Belgian cinema’s most controversial film and instant cult favourite after being denounced for its on-screen violence.

Directed by Rémy Bevaux, André Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde, the film presents a documentary film crew following a self-proclaimed serial killer around as he goes about his bloody business.

As they follow their subject, Ben (played by co-director Poelvoorde) and the crew soon become accomplices to his crimes and happily help him dispose of bodies and take money as reward for their assistance.

Ben’s commentary on his actions is tongue-in-cheek and sardonic. This is until a shocking moment spins everything on its head, forcing the crew and the audience to reevaluate their gaze and complicity in the creation of the monster at the film’s centre.

As it turns out, the outrage at the film’s depiction of violence was ill-conceived. Ultimately it is our fascination with violence that the film seeks to satirise and criticise. It does this with intelligence and a third act twist that calls everything we’ve felt, laughed at and celebrated into question.


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