Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Vanishing on 7th Street" (2010)

Starring Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo
Written by Anthony Jaswinski
Directed by Brad Anderson
Rated R - Language, violence, scary images
Running Time: 92 Minutes

Sometimes, shadows can be very, very scary.  There's a sort of primal human fear of shadows and darkness, the way our mind can interpret shapes and danger out of them.  "Vanishing on 7th Street" hopes to tap into that fear by constructing a horror movie out of our fear of shadowy shapes and figures and the danger lurking in the darkness.

Luke (Hayden Christensen... ha.  ha.  Srsly) awakes one morning to find the power out in his apartment and his girlfriend missing.  He gets dressed and goes looking for her and makes a strange discovery: everyone else has disappeared, too, leaving only piles of clothing on the ground wherever they were standing when they were taken.  After three days trying to find a working car, Luke discovers a bar with the lights still on and goes inside.  There, he finds young James (Jacob Latimore), who tells him his mother works at the bar and he's waiting for her to return.  Soon after, a third stranger arrives at the bar, a physical therapist named Rosemary (Thandie Newton).

By now all three have discovered the rules to survival in this savage new world: Stay in the light.  Whatever it is out there that's taking all the people, it can't get you if you stay in the light.  The only problem is that light is become scarce.  Batteries drain faster, generators burn through more fuel than they should, the nights are getting longer and the days shorter.  At 11 am in the morning, it's pitch dark outside.

While trying to figure out how to get out of the city, Luke finds another man, Paul (John Leguizamo) who managed to escape from whatever other realm everyone has disappeared to thanks to a malfunctioning flashlight.  His injuries are grave, but he tells the others of the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke colony hundreds of years earlier and his theory that the same thing is happening now on a world-wide scale.

Luke manages to discover a truck with a battery that still works, but the starter is bad.  He convinces the others that if he can use the generator to jump-start it, they can drive out of town.  But with their light sources running thin, getting the truck back to the bar could be suicide.

"Vanishing on 7th Street" was a very troubling film to watch, in a certain sense.  Firstly, I once had a terrific nightmare in which a shadowy figure entered my room and I was powerless to stop it.  One of the few times in my life I've actually woken up screaming.  Watching "Vanishing," I was constantly reminded of this nightmare because, well, the shadowy figures in the film look exactly like my nightmare did.  So I was predisposed to being scared watching this thing, even though the imagery in it may be horridly cliched.

I got sucked in to a few of the sequences, but the thing keeping "Vanishing" from being a great horror film is that the script just doesn't have much going for it beyond its premise.  That the movie doesn't allow its characters to discover what's truly going on is a double-edged sword - on the one hand, it's more believable that none of these random Joes can figure out the end of the world.  But on the other, it's somewhat frustrating as a viewer because ultimately it means we don't have much of a clue what's going on, either.  We know that the shadows are sentient things out to kill us, but we have no idea why.  We also don't know why some of them are shaped like weird octopus tendrils and why some are shaped like people.  Are we being converted into shadow monsters?  No clue.  The movie doesn't offer us anything beyond what it offers the characters, which is very little.

...Also, why can the shadows roar?  Who knows.  Probably just because it's "scarier."

The movie also has a couple of moments that I would call "cheap" in order to move the plot along and kill some of its characters.  Beyond the already vague origins and nature of the shadows, we learn that the sun doesn't come up until the middle of the day and only stays up for a short while.  How is this possible?  Who knows.  We also learn late in the game that the shadows have the ability to cause hallucinations in people, which leads to two of the movie's biggest groans when you realize that what you just watched for the last few minutes was a total fake-out.  It seems like a pointless thing to add to the film in the last half hour, as it only seems to exist in order to facilitate a couple of deaths as though the writer couldn't figure out how to up the stakes and get things moving.

And the film already had a few genuinely intriguing segments, but it just couldn't string them together into a whole cohesive movie.  The cast is fine enough, even the notorious Hayden Christensen who gave a couple of truly horrendous performances in the last two 'Star Wars' prequels.  Of course, when the best actor in your movie is John Leguizamo, you're kind of in trouble anyhow.  But still, everyone does fine enough that I was never annoyed by the acting, even if there's nothing really spectacular about it either.

The strength of the film is easily in the images conjured by director Brad Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz.  There's a great scene in an underground tunnel that plays on the cliche of each light going out one by one, but the effects for it and the way it's shot (it's hard to describe, but you can almost see a shadow walking forward as the lights are going out) is truly fantastic.  Anderson plays with the shadows a lot, and there are plenty of great-looking shots throughout the film. If only the script was as artful and cool as the direction, "Vanishing on 7th Street" could have been a really great horror flick.