Vanishing on 7th Street Review: Ha! I Got The Knife! Now Turn On The Goddamn Lights!
Detroit plunges into a sudden blackout. When the lights return, after a few minutes, people have disappeared, leaving just piles of clothing. The blackout first happens at the local mall cineplex where Paul (John Leguizamo) works. So the movie's showing, audience laughing in their seats, then darkness. All that remains are piles of clothing and spilled sodas and popcorn. Paul wanders into the darkened mall as the emergency lights kick on and everyone is missing. He spies a security guard and runs to catch up with him. The guard wanders into the darkness of a store and disappears with a loud scream into a pile of discarded uniform.
There's no reason given for the blackout, which is one of the best elements of the movie. Alien attack? The Rapture? Psychic phenomenon? Are they all suddenly boarded on Flight 815? No idea. And that's a strength. We get brief introductions to two more of our main protagonists -- a television reporter named Luke (Hayden Christiansen) and a hospital nurse named Rosemary (Thandie Newton) -- before we plunge ahead 72 hours. Now, everyone's learned the basic survival of this dark new existence and it's fucking creepy. It's constantly dark, and you must always stay in the light. Keep to the streetlights where you can find them, always have fresh batteries, don't step into the shadows. Because the darkness is alive. With what, we have no idea. But as people wander the streets, the shadows become liquid, pooling hungrily towards the survivors. We occasionally hear ghostly whispers and mutters, and we see the shadows of strange figures just standing there, projected against walls. It's effective and spectacular.
But it doesn't last. Because most of the film takes place in Sonny's Bar, a jukebox joint manned by James (newcomer Jacob Latimore), a twelve year old toting a shotgun and waiting for his mother to return from the church with help. The survivors eventually swarm to the bar, trying to figure out what to do and where to go. Luke found a car that still works and wants to use Sonny's generator to jump start it and drive to Chicago where they may be more survivors. (Sonny was a man after our own zombpocalyptic hearts and stocked his basement with weapons, a genny, bottle water and canned foods.) Rosemary is frantically searching for her baby. Which would be awesome if there were more to her character than just as the only female keening for her baby, except for the brief moments where the script requires her to make expository or plot advancement points. Paul they had to rescue from a flickering bus stop, and he is suffering from a head injury but also has the conspiracy theory about the lost colony of Roanoke. And James knows his mother is going to come back.
While the project feels derivative -- from Night of the Living Dead's farmhouse lockdown to the "Carol-Anne go into the light!" safety from various television shows like "Doctor Who" and "The X-Files," the premise is wonderfully original. It's a nice twist on horror as well as the post-apocalyptic genre, but it feels like a really bad atmospheric video game, right down to the mysterious little girl who seemingly survives the night along (Taylor Groothuis). The characters really are poorly crafted, and when most of the film relies on their interplay, you're in trouble. I love that Jaswinski interweaves the lost colony of Roanoke, where the colonists mysteriously disappeared without a trace only leaving the word "CROATOAN" carved into a tree. Anderson does a terrific job making the darkness unnerving, especially on a shoestring budget. The effects are a little low-tech, but I think that's what adds to their charm. It easily could have slipped into the religious, but carefully toes that line. Instead, we just don't care about these whiny victims, and desperately wish for them to disappear in a puff of Salvation Army discards.
I was rooting for this film -- for the cast, for my admiration for Anderson, and for the terrific premise -- but I was horribly disappointed. It's like riding on a subway car, and looking out the window at another train peeling off in the distance and realizing that "oh, shit, that's the one I'm supposed to be on." People trash Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, and John Leguizamo all the time, but with the right script those are three seriously fucking talented actors. And Jacob Latimore was terrific as James, with a perfect balance between childish fear and teenage bravado. Jaswinski just couldn't populate his outstanding wasteland with anything but shadows and sketches of characters. Which really is a damn shame, as this could have easily been a smashing success.
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