Monday, March 7, 2011

"Vanishing" visualizes fear but doesn't fully satisfy

Vanishing on 7th Street (2011)
90 min., rated R.

In Brad Anderson's near-miss chiller "Vanishing on 7th Street," darkness will scare the dickens out of you. Certainly, there's nothing original about another apocalyptic tale where characters wake up to a desolate world. But here, some sinister, unknown force plunges Detroit, Michigan into complete darkness, giving off ghostly shadows that are kept away by light. Yeah, those sinister, unknown forces are at it again. We start out with an indelible set piece at a crowded AMC movie theater; the lights go out, the people disappear, and all that's left are their clothes and belongings. So far, so good. 

And then there were four. Those left standing meet up in a deserted dive bar, among them being a movie theater projectionist (John Leguizamo), a TV anchor (Hayden Christensen), a doctor (Thandie Newton), and a 12-year-old kid (newcomer Jacob Latimore). Their loved ones are missing, but they need enough powered light sources when the sun goes down. Can they hang on? "Vanishing on 7th Street" has quite the interesting premise, something out of a Stephen King novel or a “Twilight Zone” episode. 

Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski is obviously trying to tackle existential themes in an allegorical fashion but nothing ever bigger happens. It's supposed to be vague and it is vague, but rather than overexplaining things, he under-explains what's at work here. Genre filmmaker Brad Anderson certainly brings a disquieting eeriness, as he did in his abandoned-nuthouse horror film "Session 9," and relies on restraint rather than gore or CG effects. He captures the unknown better than most hacky, hokey horror films do, and this couldn't have been an easy film to light, that's for sure. Also, cheap jack-in-the-box scares are minimal here; it's more about shivery atmosphere enveloping us and the characters. We gather information about these characters little by little, without extraneous subplots, and the groaning, ghoulish shadows are actually pretty menacing even if they're not really explained. 

So for a stripped-bare horror film, it's not half-bad. However, stretches of everyone yelling “I exist! I exist!” at the shadows and hitting their flashlights to go on don't amount to much. In fact, the film ends on a flat, unsatisfying note that'll have most asking, “Is that it?” Anderson's film is all about the questions when we want the answers (Why just these four people? What are those goblin things? Are they in Purgatory? Is the word “Croatoan” graffitied on a wall just a portent-heavy link to the 16th century lost colony of Roanoke? So what? etc.). It's just too bad that no one except the filmmakers will be able to acknowledge the big picture before "Vanishing on 7th Street" vanishes to its final credits. 

Grade: C +

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