Vanishing on 7th Street

By Michael T. Dennis

Scary movies have used everything from monsters and aliens to the dark depths of the human psyche to conjure fear in viewers. Brad Anderson’s “Vanishing on 7th Street” pulls up one stop short of tackling the fear of fear itself.
 
This intriguing but abstract notion takes form in a potentially interesting plot. When a late-night power outage sending Detroit into darkness. In the morning, only a handful of people remain; piles of clothes and empty cars indicate a ghostly mass disappearance.
 
Hayden Christensen plays Luke, a survivor who goes into protection mode and takes to the streets in an attempt to find out what had happened. Visiting the TV station where he works as an anchor, Luke discovers that the same mysterious event has occurred all across the country. He thus sets out on a quest to get out of Detroit and make contact with anyone who can supply some answers.
 
On his way out of town Luke stumbles across a neighborhood bar with music blaring from the shuttered windows and a neon crackle coming from its sign. Inside he discovers an electric generator with a cache of gasoline, a bomb shelter full of food, and the 13-year old James (newcomer Jacob Latimore).
 
Before James and Luke can finish with their gunpoint standoff, another survivor wanders in the front door, Rosemary (Thandie Newton) who in a state of daze is looking for her lost child. Soon the trio is joined by Paul (John Leguizamo), a conspiracy theorist suffering from a concussion that sends him in and out of consciousness at the convenience of the plot.
 
Gradually, the band of survivors calm down to pool their knowledge. Each one made it through the blackout thanks to a light source; a bedside candle, a lighter poised to ignite a cigarette, a worker's utility light. Darkness is the real enemy, but just what it represents is a matter of debate. Rosemary, for one, suggests a religious happening, but Luke is quick to dismiss her “Catholic guilt” as an explanation that doesn't solve the problem.
 
Paul offers a different answer, one that's really just a new way of posing the question. He likens their predicament to the unsolved mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke, where in 1590 a group of English settlers disappeared without a trace.
 
As the long night extends into the next day with no sign of the morning sun, and the strange forces start to wreak havoc on the generator and other electrical devices, Luke tries to find a working car. But in-fighting and encroaching darkness complicate his plans, and the group faces its collective fears with mixed results.
 
We never find out what caused the disappearances. There is an early reference to dark matter, but the lack of a scientific subplot lets “Vanishing on 7th Street” remain about how its characters cope with the scenario. This would be a formula for success if only the characters were more interesting. But here, they alternate between overblown, cartoonish types and quiet, brooding victims, neither of which makes for compelling viewing.
 
“Vanishing” is the product of director Brad Anderson and writer Anthony Jaswinski. It has the same blend of horror, science fiction, psychological drama and supernatural thriller elements as Anderson's earlier and better feature “The Machinist,” but this time the balance is off.
 
Lines of reasoning are interrupted by a flickering of the lights before they can get interesting, and the characters' defensiveness keeps them from revealing what it feels like to be in such a confounding scenario. A series of flashbacks to the moment of the blackout give much-needed background but do little to ground the characters in reality or let us know what they might be thinking.
 
Hayden Christensen is not convincing in the role of Luke, an audience surrogate who tends to grit his teeth and furrows his brow when the story changes around him. His temper tantrums feel like teenage overacting. Luke is in a situation we want to project ourselves into, but simply can't for his lack of engaging qualities.
 
“Vanishing on 7th Street” bears the weight of an entire cinematic subgenre behind it. From Vincent Price in “The Last Man on Earth” to Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man” and Will Smith in the more recent “I Am Legend” (all drawn from the same source material), as well as 2000's Christian-themed “Left Behind,” filmmakers continually take on the idea of a depopulated world. Here, at least, “Vanishing” adds something new. Following the characters as they learn just how alone they are is a fresh alternative to entering the story years later, as seems to be the mainstream sci-fi preference.
 
“Vanishing”'s taglines also recall 2007's “Fear(s) of the Dark,” a French film that posits a series of animated interpretations of fear in a visually bold, but narratively uneven, collection. Indeed, the lack of embellishment gives way to some genuinely creepy dark effects, including shape-shifting shadows and mirages of light.
 
Scenes that rely on broken flashlights and fast-dying batteries (there are many of them) should hit home for anyone whose cell phone has ever failed at the wrong moment. “Vanishing” ends on an unsatisfying note, but not because of its lack of clear answers. A tacked-on message revives the religious angle, just to let it drop again. It's the last disappointing moment in a movie with a premise that holds more promise to frighten than it can deliver.
 
Cast
 
Luke—Hayden Christensen
Rosemary—Thandie Newton
Paul—John Leguizamo
James—Jacob Latimore
Briana—Taylor Groothuis
 
Credits
 
Herrick Entertainment and Mandalay Vision
Distributed by Magnet Releasing
Directed by Brad Anderson
Written by Anthony Jaswinski
Producers, Tove Christensen, Joy Goodwin, Elayne Herrick, Michael Herrick, Norton Herrick, Pamela Hirsch, Ken Hirsch, Nic Marshall, Lawrence Mattis, Kelly McCormick, Peter Pastorelli, Nick Quested, Celine Rattray, Joe Surace
Original Music, Lucas Vidal
Cinematographer, Uta Briesewitz
Editor, Jeffrey Wolf
Casting, Matthew Lessall
Production Designer, Stephen Beatrice
Art Director, Scott Anderson