Director: Brad Anderson

Writer: Anthony Jaswinski

Cast: Hayden Christiansen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo

Release Date: 2/18/11

You’re home alone and the lights drop out. Smothered by shadows, you remain calm and assume it’s a technical issue, despite the innate fears of the unknown, the oppressive emptiness of darkness. This is a universal fear, of course, with movies long filling in the blanks, imagining the unimaginable emerging from blackness to disrupt the safety of innocents, and the not-so-innocent. But what if there were no chainsaw killer, mad cannibal, or dangerous animal lurking out of sight, but in fact the darkness itself?

Skimpy idea, sure, but potent. Enough to fuel a sparse episode of “The Twilight Zone” perhaps, provided there were commercial breaks. But dramatically satisfying enough for a movie? Brad Anderson’s “Vanishing On 7th Street” aims to test that hypothesis. Early enough it succeeds – the very first moments concern a plucky movie theater projectionist who witnesses the complete loss of electricity from within the projection booth. He wonders if a cable got pulled or a wire slashed, but there is no one in the lobby.

Worst still, in the film’s most ghoulish moment, he heads back into the booth. The theater has gone silent, which seems odd to any moviegoer who is used to the complaining and general asshattery of annoyed customers. Innocently peering into the seats, the camera captures his gaze – rows and rows of seats littered with freshly-worn clothing, not a single person present.

In another sequence, a handsome newscaster wakes at dawn and begins to encounter the same haunted atmosphere. Everyone has vanished. As he leaves his apartment, he discovers abandoned city streets, cars having been crashed, stopped, and generally abandoned. Troubled and confused, he is so absorbed by the chaos that he fails to notice a commercial flight plummeting to the ground merely hundreds of feet away.

The momentum of these twin de-population segments is abruptly halted as the film surrenders to what is apparently the needs of the story (or budget) – a small town shrouded in darkness, several days after the incidents we’ve witnessed. Our projectionist and newscaster have both somehow arrived here, finding sanctuary at a dimly-lit bar with a miraculously powerful generator, accompanied by a grieving mother and an unrelated young boy.

To say this is a disastrous story decision is an understatement. Despite the early suggestion that this encroaching darkness may be a horror movie version of the scientific phenomena known as dark matter, there is no context for the events at the start of the film, a nod to the primitive fear of uncontrollable chaos, and a misleading sign of respect that an audience member could fill in the blanks with their own fears.

Now, these arbitrarily-unaffected survivors of the darkness understand that you need certain light sources, artificial or otherwise, to stay alive. They tell each other to stay aware, since the darkness can kill electricity and batteries, sometimes quicker than other times. And they also know that apparent the darkness causes people to hallucinate. In a situation that involves increasing darkness (one character mentions that each day now has less sunlight than the last), and the random disappearance of others, we know the deck is stacked against humanity. We don’t really need to know to what extent.

It’s the proliferation of “rules” that defuses any scares that might emerge from the situation. Director Brad Anderson has proven to be skilled at creating tense atmosphere from morbid locations like the halfway house in “Session 9,” and moral quandaries as in “The Machinist.” In those films, he was gifted with skilled ensembles that could properly illustrate the hopelessness of their situations.

In “Vanishing On 7th Street,” the handsome newscaster is played by a jittery, monotone Hayden Christiansen, consistently threatening to becoming inoffensively uninteresting, but more often settling on his customary terrible. He’s quickly paired off with Thandie Newton’s reformed junkie, and Newton, a talented actress capable of torpedoing a film with unfocused histrionics, flails in dialogue moments with him, the two of them ill-equipped to create realistic characterizations in a heightened setting.

As the projectionist, John Leguizamo spends most of his screen time on his back after his character‘s injury, somehow out-acting the entire cast without using his arms or legs. Despite the impending apocalypse, he remains optimistic, imagining that tomorrow will be a new day to romance the girl he adores by screening his favorite movies. His desire to face the end of the world with his favorite songs out of the nearby jukebox stands in stark contrast to the hopelessness of the entire endeavor, since Anderson and company, at least in this film, don’t believe in anything.

We don’t think there’s much to spoil in telling you that there’s no context or theories about why this has happened, or why our heroes somehow survived. A smarter man than I might be able to pry some sort of social context or deeper understanding about what “Vanishing On 7th Street” means and where it’s politics lie, but it certainly reads otherwise. Though I doubt that man will be richer after finding a more socio-political way of echoing the movie’s blanket sentiment: We’re fucked.


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