Vanishing on 7th Street
Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo, Jacob Latimore
(Magnet Releasing; US DVD: 17 May 2011)
With the recent hubbub over the epic Rapture fail by businessman turned mathematician-evangelist Harold Camping, a movie like Vanishing on 7th Street is very refreshing. No, it’s not much better than the latest cult creating hysteric at evoking logic and reasoning. No, it’s post-Apocalyptic vision of a Detroit bereft of people and plagued by a body-snatching “darkness” can’t compare to the Four Horsemen, the End Days, and the notion of people rising to Heaven and/or remaining on a literal Hell on Earth. And no, it can’t quite match the arch overacting of Camping and his crew, stars Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, and John Leguizamo unable to give performances of nuance, consideration, and…oddly enough, considering the comparison, believability.
Indeed, the refreshment comes with seeing something actually stupider and more stunted than said “Jesus is Coming” con artists.
Detroit TV reporter Luke Ryder (Christensen) wakes up one silent metropolitan morning to no alarm, no power…and no people. Up and down the street outside his building, he sees clothes and the fragments of a former civilization, but no human bodies. Slowly, we discover that the darkness has a kind of supernatural power all its own. It absorbs individuals. Shadows speak and take on a surreal—and deadly—life absent their owners.
Eventually, Luke ends up in a dingy local bar, holed up with desperate mother Rosemary (Newton), frightened film projectionist Paul (Leguizamo) and a loaded for bear James (Jacob Latimore), a pre-teen who wants to protect them. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, our survivors struggle with the truth of their situation. Even worse, it appears as if the darkness is trying to trick them, luring them into situations that could seem them sucked up and vanished, as well.
In one of those typical low budget circumstances in which a great idea, under financed, starts out promising and then goes nowhere interesting or intriguing, Vanishing of 7th Street quickly wears out its already limited welcome. When we see our inert star, wandering the empty cityscape of an evocative Motor City, we anticipate something special. When a jet airliner casually crashes in the background, as the hopelessness of the situation is spelled out in broad disaster movie terms, we grow terrified. But then director Brad Anderson and writer Anthony Jaswinski realize that they can’t spend 90 minutes making the two-tone version of a Roland Emmerich film, and draw the scope in around them.
The result is a sheepish one act play where a group of noted thespians on a single set (more or less) try their best to salvage some shoddy dialogue. As with many examples in the could-a/should-a/would-a been better genre, they can’t.
Even the premise has a potential that turns weird and wonky after a while. Fear of the dark is universal. Not knowing what lies beyond the last illuminated remnants of a hallway or room has fueled many a childhood/adolescent/adult nightmare. By making it “real”, by trying to turn the lack of light into some manner of ‘monster’, Vanishing on 7th Street violates one of the clear codes of suspense.
In order to dread something, you have to sense its authenticity and realism. You have to believe in the reality of the unreal situation, so to speak. Last time anyone checked, a broken bulb in the basement is not some cosmic conspiracy to trick humans into a demonic alternate dimension. A lack of an explanation is one thing (and the film does try). The lack of a credible one is worse.
This is the problem with almost all ‘last man on Earth’ scenarios. How six billion people got sheered down to a handful always begs a boxcar of questions. Sure, you can get away with some ambiguity, but most audience members like to feel a sense of certainty when it comes to Armageddon. Give them a nuclear holocaust or a zombie plague and they are perfectly happy. Vanishing on 7th Street‘s supposed solution to this problem” invoke the “lost colony” of Roanoke (North Carolina) from 1587. Now that’s creepy, right? Well, not exactly.
Indeed, what this movie lacks most is legitimate frights. It’s like M Night Shyamalan’s “be afraid of the trees” travesty The Happening with foot candles, and both are equally dim.
Of course, with no one to root for or care about, a movie like this cannot survive. Among the actors, Newton is perhaps the most tolerable as her crazed mother mantra is at least apropos. Leguizamo decides that any and all scenery he comes across demands chewing. He’s less subtle here than when we was taking on walking corpses and an evil Dennis Hopper in George Romero’s Land of the Dead. But the worst violator of the viewer’s already diminished attention span is Darth Dull. Christensen, who will never live down his association to George Lucas’ loopy cinematic mid-life crisis (otherwise known as the Star Wars prequels) is so flat and wooden here that Mike Holmes is using him for finish framing. His Luke is so lightweight, so lost within the bigger picture concepts of his predicament that he’s resorted to indirect catatonia to express his anxiety.
Along the way, Anderson shows some skill as a director. He drives the action—what little there is—with a deft touch and treats the more insane moments with a necessary amount of seriousness. But the story constantly sells him short, getting smaller and more inconsequential as the minutes go by. We expect things to open up, to get to the big ideas the subject suggests. Yet Vanishing on 7th Street is not into expanding one’s mind. Instead, it wants to bore you to tears—and in that capacity, it does a damn fine job. During the final “confrontation” between the dark, a truck, our remaining cast members, a Church, and a bunch of allegorical religious hogwash rests the final nail in this failed film’s coffin.
One can forgive misguided Bible thumpers for getting their version of the End of the World wrong. When asked to sit back and suffer through it for 90 noxious minutes, however, there is no excuse. There is no rapture in experiencing Vanishing on 7th Street. Speculative buyer’s remorse? Absolutely.