Saturday, October 06, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Vanishing on 7th Street

With a blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical release in America and a muted afterlife on DVD, Brad Anderson’s follow up to ‘Session 9’, ‘The Machinist’ and ‘Transsiberian’ certainly lived up to the key word of its title. In a certain respect, it’s easy to see why: it would have been overshadowed by earlier, bigger-budgeted films with similar apocalyptic themes – ‘The Happening’ and ‘Knowing’ spring immediately to mind – and would have struggled to find an audience not already alienated by those aforementioned efforts.

‘Vanishing on 7th Street’ is a better movie conceptually, aesthetically and intellectually than ‘The Happening’ or ‘Knowing’, but lacks the compulsive car-crash awfulness of the former and the sweeping let’s-destroy-the-world-to-the-strains-of-Beethoven grandeur of the latter. It’s also riddled with lacunae (deliberately), shot through with a gaping plot hole (although there is, albeit metaphorical, the hint of an explanation) and makes a final act swerve from creepy-as-hell horror movie to balls-to-the-wall religious allegory.

It’s a film that wants to make its audience think for themselves as much as it wants them to jump at shadows. It wants to unnerve you and crank up the suspense and get on down with an early John Carpenter siege aesthetic. It also wants to throw out some big questions and God and mankind and the unexplained. It wants you to drop your popcorn at the big scare scenes and borrow some Dostoyevsky from the library on the way home. Oh, and it wants to do all of this while parading itself under a title that sounds like a film noir.

To be sure, Anderson and scriptwriter Anthony Jaswinski want to have their cake and eat it, but as a wise individual once put it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” By the final stages, it becomes unavoidably apparent that Anderson and Jaswinski have exceeded their grasp, but what they were stretching out for – the more-than-a-hint-of-it that makes it to the screen – is impressive enough that it would take a harsher critic than me to rule the film a failure.

The main touchstones of ‘Vanishing on 7th Street’ are, respectively, primal and mythical. There’s the age-old fear of the dark. And there’s the enigma, still not entirely satisfactorily explained, of the mass disappearance of settlers from the Roanoke Colony in the seventeenth century. Projectionist Paul (John Leguizamo) reads an account of the disappearance at the beginning of the film, killing time between switching reels in the cinema he works at. A power cut plunges everywhere but his booth into darkness (he’s using a torch); seconds later, the cinema is empty, nothing left of its patrons except the clothes they were wearing, now pooled in untidy heaps on or around their seats.

Physiotherapist Rosemary (Thandie Newton) encounters a similar phenomenon; stepping outside the hospital for a smoke, the guttering flame of her cigarette lighter is the only illumination when the lights go out. She stumbles back inside to find the building deserted except for one man on an operating table, his stomach cut open, suffering from massive trauma. Understandably so.

TV reporter Luke (Hayden Christensen) awakes surrounded by candles, lit in anticipation of a romantic dalliance with his girlfriend the previous evening. He wanders through apartment; the TV doesn’t work, neither does his mobile. Heading out into the street, he finds the city deserted.

Anderson spends just enough time establishing his trio of protagonists, then leaps forward 72 hours. The rules have suddenly, and without much in the way of exposition, been established: the sun is rising later in the day and setting earlier; the city is virtually empty of life; things come out of the shadows – sometimes looking like the silhouettes of large and threatening people, sometimes looking like faces and sometimes resembling nothing so much as tendrils – and encloak everything not immediately contained by the penumbra cast by a source of light.

72 hours and Luke in particular has morphed into a full-on survivalist, roaming the city for torches and batteries, checking every abandoned vehicle he comes across to see if it will start. He has one aim: get out of the city. He purses this aim selfishly, refusing help to others. Until, that is, he fetches up at a bar on 7th Street where the electricity is still on thanks to a back-up generator. Here he meets James (Jacob Latimore), a desperately scared young lad hoping against hope that his mother will return. Presently Rosemary and Paul also fetch up at the bar, and the film settles in for its middle third. Things get talky, with tranches of dialogue given over to trying to find a rationale for what is happening. This is redundant, since a fear of the dark is universal. Moreover, the shadow-things are infinitely creepier for not being explained.

Ultimately, though, the script eschews explanation and wrong-foots the audience with a ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (Snyder version) style escape attempt before delivering its allegorical conclusion. The “reboot” concept (there’s a reason I referenced ‘Knowing’ at the start of this review) leaves the film mired in some heavy-handed and often quite awkward religious imagery, and by the time the two surviving characters literally ride off into what could well be a world-enshadowing sunset it’s hard not to wish that ‘Vanishing on 7th Street’ had stuck with its original tenebrous premise and gone the horror movie route right to the end.

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