Missing person tropes were a familiar staple of the mystery genre long before cinema, but movies have without a doubt become the ultimate medium for the thrill of a character suddenly going MIA. We love vanishing acts in all their different forms: they appeal to the amateur sleuth in us, intrigue our most childlike sense of wonder, and sometimes just freak us out — especially when they seem to defy reason. Cinema, much like sleight of hand, is all about spectacle, and creating the spectacle of disappearance requires certain elements of suspense, surprise, and above all else, a feeling of uneasiness. We’ve made a list of ten of the most classic, unsettling vanishing acts on film that are sure to keep you guessing.
The classic cinematic vanishing act, Antonioni’s haunting and visually captivating masterpiece revolves around the disappearance of a bourgeois woman from a Mediterranean island while on a yachting trip. In his characteristically atmospheric style, Antonioni leaves the mystery unexplained, delving instead into the existential and romantic anxiety opened up between the vanished woman’s best friend and her lover.
Lost Highway (1997)
David Lynch’s nightmarish foray into the themes of identity, sex, violence, and memory involves a pivotal vanishing act halfway through the film, as the main character, played by Bill Pullman, mysteriously disappears from his prison cell, replaced instead by a young auto mechanic. You may or may not want to watch this one alone with the lights out.
The Vanishing (1988)
The artful Dutch-French mystery film Spoorloos (English title: The Vanishing) centers on a man’s desperate search for his mysteriously vanished lover. The movie was later remade in English, but that version fails to retain the bizarre imagery and suspense of the original.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Disappearance is often used as a plot device within the unfolding of a story, but this Wim Wenders classic begins after the disappearance has already happened, as a nearly mute amnesiac mysteriously wanders out of the desert and reunites with his brother. The reason for his disappearance isn’t fully explained until nearly the end of the film.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
A Hitchcock favorite, this film is the classic train mystery movie. Following a murder, a woman disappears suddenly and nobody seems to remember her having existed at all. Hitchcock’s treatment of disappearance has certainly become influential to nearly all psychological thrillers since, such as the more recent Flightplan starring Jodie Foster.
The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan’s film is different than most movies where a character vanishes inexplicably, given that it’s actually about the art of the vanishing act itself. The film seems to parallel the structure of a magic trick, drawing us deeper into the mysterious story of rival magicians and the ultimate illusion: the ability to disappear and reappear. While arguably The Illusionist, which came out the same year, could also fit this bill, Nolan’s movie has, among other things, David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, which pretty much trumps anything ever.
Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)
Laurence Olivier’s performance and the excellent soundtrack featuring The Zombies has made Bunny Lake Is Missing something of a British cult classic. A single mother discovers that her daughter Bunny has disappeared after her first day in a new school. Nobody seems to remember having ever seen the girl, and the mother begins to question whether she ever actually existed.
Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Ingmar Bergman’s taste for the surreal and the horrifying culminates in this film, which begins with a strange mystery: after a series of unusual encounters on an isolated island, a well-known painter disappears and is subsequently murdered. As his wife recounts the bizarre and haunting story reconstructed from his diary, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between reality and nightmare.
Costa-Gavras’ classic drama focuses on a different kind of vanishing act: the real life politically linked disappearance of American journalist Charles Horman during the events following the controversial US-backed Chilean Coup of 1973 that deposed president Salvador Allende and installed dictator Augusto Pinochet. Horman’s wife and father search desperately to solve the mystery of his disappearance, discovering that their own government may not be telling them the whole truth.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
This creepy story about a group of Australian schoolgirls who disappear during a holiday outing is probably the quintessential vanishing act in all of cinematic history. The flute music alone is enough to keep you up at night.