TIFF 2010 Review: 'Vanishing on 7th Street'


His name might be a bit easy to overlook when making a list of the most consistent genre-friendly filmmakers working these days, but after delivering films like Session 9, The Machinist, and Transsiberian, it seems pretty clear that Brad Anderson loves to spook and scare people. He's certainly not "only" a horror director, but the man clearly has an affection for old-fashioned  haunted house stories, and deep, dark Hitchcock-style thrillers. For his latest, Vanishing on 7th Street, Anderson seems to take inspiration from tales found in The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and the result is a relatively unique and novel thriller that finds a new angle on the old "sudden apocalypse" concept.

The weirdness kicks in early: we're introduced to a slightly eccentric projectionist named Paul (John Leguizamo) who pops out of his booth just after a brief blackout occurs. Scattered throughout the movie theater are clothes, purses, shoes, and all sorts of personal items. But there are no people to be found. Either everyone stripped their clothes off simultaneously and hid somewhere -- or something really wrong is going on here. We then jump over to a physical therapist named Rosemary (Thandie Newton), who is dealing with the same horrors in a hospital, and then we get to meet news reporter Luke (Hayden Christensen) who wakes up to find, yep, everyone missing. As the days pass, electrical systems fail, car batteries die, and simple flames don't seem as strong as they used to. The darkness is everywhere.

A few clues and creepy moments arise before our three characters converge in a mysteriously over-illuminated bar (called Sunny's), which is where they meet a brave but vulnerable 12-year-old called James. Much of Vanishing's second half takes place in Sunny's bar as Luke, Paul, James, and Rosemary discuss how and why everyone has disappeared, why the darkness seems to be suddenly sentient and very angry, and if there's a way to keep the generator in the basement from losing its power. Meanwhile every shadow, every alleyway, and every darkened corner slowly fills with ... angry figures who hiss and moan.

I saw a clever tweet about the film that described it as a zombie flick, only here it's an army of shadows instead of the ravenous undead. And I generally don't steal people's tweets unless I agree with them. At its best moments, Vanishing on 7th Street works very well as a mysterious "oh man, run!" sort of horror film, and Anderson composes a big handful of suspenseful sequences in which our four heroes narrowly escape the encroaching evil by way of flashlight, headlight, or road flare. Ah, did I not mention that any form of light keeps the danger at bay? That's the good news. The bad news is that, while batteries and generators do work, they seem to be less effective each time they're employed. As if the darkness needs a little more time to deal with a well-lit bus stop or a cleverly-positioned light stick. Ultimately, our four survivors know that their respite at Sunny's is a temporary one, but given the situation out on the street, it's not like they have anywhere to go either.

Intent on being vague and ambiguous regarding its omnipresent antagonist, Anderson starts Vanishing as an apocalypse thriller, moves on to a surprisingly poignant character piece, and dabbles here and there in theories both mythological and religious in nature. The small cast is uniformly excellent, which is no surprise for actors like Newton and Leguizamo, but it's Hayden Christensen who manages to anchor the film with a character both slightly likable and subtly selfish. Newcomer Jacob Latimore is nothing short of fantastic, delivering a "scary movie kid" who's neither unrealistically cocky or unbelievably stupid. Young James is the key to the whole film in many ways, and Latimore brings a braveness and a vulnerability that are essential as the flick gets even weirder in its third act.

But what does it all MEAN? The best horror / thrillers always have some sort of message, moral, or subtext beneath the surface, and it's here that Vanishing on 7th Street both succeeds and frustrates. It's plainly clear that this is no sort of mindless monster movie, but is it a metaphor for social decay? Sort of. Given that the characters all have biblical names, that means it's got some sort of deep religious meaning! Well, to a point, absolutely. Perhaps it's just a scary little tale about the importance of people, especially total strangers, being kind to one another. 24 hours after the screening I'm still sort of chewing on what the "points" of Vanishing on 7th Street are, but maybe just the fact that the film gives you some ambiguity to chew upon is enough.

The "monsters" are an effectively creepy creation. Anderson uses natural shadows and (perhaps too much) CGI to bring the living darkness to cinematic life, but the subtler chills often work a lot better than the bigger ones do. The sparse Detroit setting lends a plainly apocalyptic feel to the neighborhood surrounding Sunny's bar, and Anderson actually finds a way to wedge in a few character flashbacks that are, against normal odds, both compelling and pertinent to the plot. Wonderfully shot in deep, bleak shadows, set to an aggressively moody musical score, and quick enough to get through the apocalypse in less than 90 minutes, Vanishing on 7th Street might not rank among Brad Anderson's best films to date, but it'd certainly be in the top three of most other genre-intensive filmmakers.