[CAUTION: SPOILERS and MORE SPOILERS]
The story is simple.
After ten hours on the road at the start of their vacation, Dutch couple Rex Hofman and Saskia Ehlvest stop at a gas station following a brief quarrel. They quickly make up, signifying their love by burying two coins at a certain spot alongside the station and covering them with a pebble. Afterwards, Saskia takes the car keys and heads inside to grab some drinks for the road.
And vanishes, without a trace.
Years pass, and Rex becomes obsessed in discovering what happened to her. He puts up posters, ads in the paper. Needless to say, this is a challenge for any potential love interests, including his latest flame Lieneke. Finally, one day he is approached by French chemistry professor Raymond Lemorne, who not only intimates that he knows what happened to Saskia but reveals the car keys with the familiar, frayed scrap of leather she took along with her into the station all those years ago.
The unlikely pair take a drive, and the stranger gives Rex an ultimatum: drink a cup of drugged coffee and experience exactly what Saskia experienced—or refuse, and Rex will never know what happened to her. Lemorne (his surname means “the gloomy one”) claims there is no evidence connecting him with the crime, and should Rex go that route, he will never reveal what truly occurred.
“You’re insane,” Rex tells him.
“That is irrelevant,” Lemorne says.
As it happens, Lemorne has driven them back to the station, back to the place where Rex and Saskia had last buried those coins signifying their love.
Rex drinks the coffee.
He passes out, dreaming briefly of Saskia before waking in total darkness.
He already knew. It was too horrible to know.
He has been placed within the wooden walls of a casket and buried alive—just as Saskia had been years earlier.
“Stay calm,” he thought. “I’ve been here for fifteen minutes. My name is Rex Hofman.” When he realized how ridiculous it was to have a name in this place, he began to laugh.
This is The Golden Egg.*
In my mind, this story has taken on the aura of a classic tale, not quite urban legend but worthy of the gold-emblazoned status afforded, say, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs or that episode of the Twilight Zone where Rocky’s trainer breaks his reading glasses (“Time Enough At Last” with Burgess Meredith, for those keeping score at home). The central plot of The Golden Egg has, in fact, been compared to the urban legend of “The Vanishing Lady.”
Alternatively called “The Vanishing Hotel Room,” this tale concerns the world’s fair held in France in either 1889 or 1900. Accordingly, a woman and her daughter travel to Paris for the Exposition and, checking into their hotel, the mother soon falls ill. After consulting a doctor, the young girl is instructed to travel across town for the needed medication. Upon returning, she finds her mother not only vanished without a trace, but no one at the hotel having any memory of having seen either of them ever before.
Other stories credited with using this legend include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950), the Julianne Moore flick The Forgotten (2004), Jodie Foster’s Flightplan (2005), and—one of my personal favorites—the Kurt Russell/J.T. Walsh thriller Breakdown (1997). The legend was also featured in the third edition of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (“Maybe You Will Remember”) and, the gold standard and Mount Everest of anthology programs, Fox’s Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction.**
The Golden Egg, originally published in Holland in 1984, was written by Dutch journalist and novelist Tim Krabbé, who is said to have based the story on a newspaper article he read about a tourist vanishing from a bus trip after stopping at a gas station in France (she was later found alive and well, having simply boarded the wrong bus). Krabbé went on to co-write the screenplay for the film adaptation, 1988’s Spoorloos.*** According to director George Sluizer, Stanley Kubrick contacted him after having watched Spoorloos as many as ten times, impressed by the film’s structure and ending—and purportedly telling Sluizer it was the most terrifying film he’d ever seen.
Likewise, at one time Entertainment Weekly had it ranked as the 25th Scariest Movie of All Time. I personally wouldn’t go that far—though, adjusted for cultural inflation, for its time I suppose this 1988 adaptation was about as wickedly grotesque as last year’s Speak No Evil.
Five years later, another adaptation would be released: 1993’s The Vanishing.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, and Sandra Bullock, this time the story got the Hollywood treatment, though with director George Sluizer returning for the remake. The film was considered a box office bomb, poorly received and widely panned by critics. Most notably, the tragic—and perhaps more nihilistically impressionable—ending had gotten a remix, and this time the villain was bested by love and everything worked out just fine (not so much for Sandra Bullock, but still).
Now for a little full disclosure. Having grown up with this version of the story, without knowledge of Tim Krabbé’s novella nor Spoorloos, I actually really loved this film—and still enjoy it to this day.
Jeff Bridges is magnetic and doofy and terrifying as Raymond, now named Barney Cousins (a rare villain turn for The Dude), and Sutherland (Rex/Jeff Harriman), Travis (Lieneke/Rita Baker), and Bullock (Saskia/Diane Shaver) play their parts perfectly. The happy ending certainly didn’t bother me,**** and I had no original to hold it up against and feel short-changed or kid-gloved.
Now, after having read the novella and watched the original film, I’ve come to appreciate them each for what they are—not just different arrangements of the same musical piece, but rather three movements making up one grand symphony. The original ending—that is, of the novella and 1988 film—had to exist, throwing a punch to the gut that lingers forever. But there’s an undeniable, conventional sort of beauty in the American adaptation, in a world where love conquers all and Jack Bauer doesn’t have to spend eternity in a pine box. Nancy Travis fleshed out the Lieneke/Rita role with charm and emotion. For my money, it also has Rex/Jeff’s most realistic reaction when confronted by Raymond/Barney and that dangling set of car keys.
In the film versions, as they embark on that final drive back to the station, Raymond/Barney relates a story. He’s a teenager, and while reading on a high balcony he begins to wonder what would happen if he jumped. He considers the pros and cons, “always with the dark sense that it was already certain he would jump.” He sits on the balustrade for an hour and half, pondering the implications—and then leaps.
He later spends six week in the hospital with a broken leg and an arm fractured in two places.***** In like fashion, years later while out with his family, his daughter spots a young girl drowning. Without hesitation, he leaps from the bridge, plunging down into the water. To the praise and adoration of his family, he rescues the drowning girl. Lemorne, meanwhile, considers his heroism as only one side of a coin. He wonders if he is likewise as capable of committing great evil as good. And so, he had methodically set his mind to doing just that.
For me, the most compelling—and disturbing—portions of the story are not those involving Rex's obsession with discovering the truth, but rather Raymond Lemorne/Barney Cousins and his meticulous planning and charades toward accomplishing his goal.
Dousing himself with chloroform and timing his chemical naps with a stopwatch. Practicing his approach to random targets, his delivery, his methods of abduction. Taking his pulse, getting his heart rate nice and low. Going through the motions of his step-by-step, sleight-of-hand dance around the car to ready his chloroform rag. And, most chilling, the smothering of his imaginary victim.
Focusing on the potential for and machinations of human evil in the story, we learn that the most terrifying sort of monster is not the serial killer who goes on killing, stampeding as a beast of unruly passions and blind fury.
Much more dangerous and cunning is the methodical slayer of life, getting just a taste and then returning once more to their normal lives, blending in among us. One random yet coordinated act of senseless violence, forever forgotten in the rush of ordinary years.
"Rex remembered an article he had once written for his magazine about falling, including accounts from people who had survived a fall from a plane. None of them had felt fear. They had been resigned, curious and, above all, lucid.
That was how he felt now too: dazzlingly lucid."
*The title itself, The Golden Egg, is taken from a dream Saskia describes.
All versions of the story involve an incident in which the couple run out of gas on a treacherous stretch of road (a darkened tunnel in the films, a pitch-dark Italian country road in the novella). Rex abandons Saskia in the car, taking a jerry can in search of gas. Though entirely nixed from the 1993 adaptation, the novella and original film go on to describe a certain childhood nightmare of Saskia’s in which she is “locked inside a golden egg that was flying through the universe. Everything was black, there weren’t even any stars, she’d be stuck in there forever, and she couldn’t die. There was only one hope. There was another golden egg flying through space; if they collided, they’d both be destroyed, and it would be over.” As the novella relates: "Rex had been shocked that such an image of horror could arise in such a small child.”
In both films, there is undeniable imagery of Saskia waiting at the end of that dark tunnel after Rex returns with the jerry can of gas; the halo of light surrounding her indeed resembles a golden egg. However, I think the couple's final resting places inside the wooden casket—each fitted with a small mattress in the original story—is the ultimate realization of this “golden egg.”
**To be honest, I don’t believe “The Vanishing Lady” legend is a perfect fit for The Golden Egg, as so many of these examples involve a certain amount of conspiracy among folks to cover the truth; in this story, not even Raymond Lemorne’s family is privy to his actions (apart from suspecting an affair).
***Spoorloos (Dutch translation: “Traceless” or “Without a Trace”) was submitted to the Academy Awards in 1988 as the official Dutch entry for Best Foreign Language Film—and later disqualified, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) ruled there was too much French dialogue in the film to warrant being a Dutch candidate.
****Speaking of Hollywood endings, this movie ends in essentially the same fine dining establishment where James Caan enjoys lunch after caving in Annie Wilkes head with a typewriter in the final scene of Misery.
*****It is, in fact, after coming across a picture of himself from this time, his arm shattered, that Lemorne hits on the missing ingredient in his abduction scheme: donning a faux cast and sling, he utilizes the Ted Bundy approach in luring his victims away.