'Vanishing': Lights Out, for Everyone
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In Brad Anderson's "Vanishing on 7th Street," the modern (digital filming and effects) combines with the classic (claustrophobic horror tropes and tricks), and if the end result is more ambitious than it is well-executed, isn't it nice, at the very least, to see a horror film that tries to do something other than push the boundaries of gory boredom? The movie may feel improbably old-school -- you feel, at times, as if Rod Serling's suit-clad "Twilight Zone" narrator is going to glide out of the shadows to comment on matters -- but it's also made by a director who's enough of a craftsman to wring more than a few drops of adrenaline and fear-sweat out of its seemingly dusty constructions and concepts.
The movie has a basic hook. The poet Robbie Burns spoke of "things that go bump in the night," but here, it's the night itself doing the bumping. Darkness falls in Detroit, in a massive power outage, and movie projectionist Paul (John Leguizamo) steps out of the booth, nerdy headlamp strapped on, to find the theater, crowded a minute ago, empty except for piles of clothes. (It may be entirely accidental, but the whole piles-of-clothing device -- in addition to being an admirable, economical, scary bit of scripting -- also evoked memories of the 1974 TV-cheapie-chiller "Where Have All the People Gone?," a film that's entirely forgotten but for the fact that it creeped me out eternally when I was a kid.)
Paul winds up at a bar on 7th street, along with reporter Luke (Hayden Christensen), nurse Rosemary (Thandie Newton) and kid James (Jacob Latimore). The darkness is hungry -- and it's only kept at bay by light, so our frightened foursome huddle around the flickering lights, nervously eye the bar's generator and try to keep the darkness at bay while they make emergency plans and flash back to the lives they had in a world that seems to be gone.
Anderson, as he did in "Session 9," has a great eye for mixing real-world locations and digital effects to substantially spooky effect. His abandoned Detroit is creepily unsettling (Anderson told IndieWire -- with no small amount of dark humor -- "To be honest, finding deserted streets in Detroit wasn't a big challenge. ... It's sort of sad to say: If you're doing an apocalyptic movie, Detroit's the place to go.") The digital effects, with their warping and hungry shadows, are also chilling.
If there's a flaw in Anthony Jaswinski's script, it's that the rules of the encroaching shadows feel a little arbitrary: Light holds the darkness back, except when it doesn't; the lights work, except when they flicker. It feels picayune, but to me supernatural elements work better for the script and the audience when they have a little consistency -- the werewolf changes at the full moon, the vampire can't face the sunlight -- as that creates challenges for the filmmakers, and audience, that engage the brain as much as the nervous system. It's the difference between the circumstances of a story and the cheats of a screenwriter's mind.
The actors are all good enough to work with what they have. Leguizamo brings his usual squirrely charm, Christensen is harried and heroic, Newton gets to thanklessly freak out, while Latimore's kid is neither precociously fake nor merely helpless. Still, at the same time, they are horror-film types -- the twitchy conspiracy theorist with the inside info, the tough-as-nails hero who bucks up under the pressure, the distraught person of faith, the plucky innocent -- but isn't that part of the pleasure of material as classically constructed and intelligently aware as this?
"Vanishing on 7th Street" is short on the things that ruin horror -- money, exposition, gore -- and long on the things that make horror great -- atmosphere, inventiveness, primal terrors. A little more polish in the writing could have made it a must-see, but as it stands, it's a fairly solid B-movie matinee with a nicely calibrated mix of intellectual dread and visceral shock.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.