Hayden Christensen huddles in a shrinking pool of light while a mysterious darkness swallows up the entire human race. Vanishing on 7th. Street, in select theaters today, starts out spooky, but fails to make you care about its characters.
Vanishing on 7th. St. is one of those movies that starts off really, really strong — to the point where you think that you're about to discover a new cult classic. We're at a movie theater, where a projectionist (John Leguziamo) is half-paying attention to the latest crappy movie he's showing, and flirting with the cute girl at the concession stand. And suddenly the projector fails, and all the power goes out everywhere. Darkness falls, and weird shadows start encroaching. And suddenly, tons of people disappear, to be replaced with piles of clothing. Everywhere this guy goes, piles of clothing.
It's incredibly creepy and effective — this mysterious force is just sucking up people's bodies, leaving nothing but their clothes behind. And the shadows seem to be alive, moving closer and closer all the time. And they're somehow leaching power from any electrical source — leaving you in darkness without any warning. Worst of all, the shadows seem to have a sinister intelligence, and they play tricks on your mind.
Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, plus some episodes of Fringe) puts all of his energy into creating an atmosphere of bewildering menace, and he absolutely succeeds. The whole world has turned into a shadowy deathtrap, and all of the normal social institutions and comforts are gone. In a sense, the film strips the post-apocalyptic movie down to its essence: the trappings of our world remain, but nothing actually works, and everybody is just trying to survive.
Eventually, we learn some Steven Moffat-style rules about how to survive the
Vashta Narada deadly shadows, via a man on a video recording. Including "don't trust any light source you don't hold in your hand." And if you hear your disappeared loved ones calling out to you, it's probably just the shadows trying to trick you. It's a weird game of survival, in which the walls seem to be closing in at any moment.
Hayden Christensen plays a self-absorbed TV reporter — basically, the same slightly dickish character Christensen always plays. He discovers that his TV studio has shut down, and the colleague he was having an affair with has vanished — and soon he realizes the weird disappearances are happening in more than just his corner of the world. We never quite get a sense of how widespread the mysterious shadow-death thing is, but it seems like it could be worldwide, and there may only a few humans left alive.
What's causing this phenomenon? We never know, although there are weird hints here and there. At the start of the film, the projectionist character is reading a magazine in which there's an article about the mystery of dark matter — it's the most common substance in the universe, but we know nothing about it. And then he flips the page to an article about the disappearance of the colony at Roanoake Island, in which just the word "CROATOAN" was found carved on a tree. The "CROATOAN" thing is mentioned again, later in the film, because it's like the original mystery disappearance story that every two-bit horror movie has to name-drop. There are also extremely vague discussions about the idea that this could be the Rapture, or some supernatural machinations.
Like I said, the movie starts out quite well — and then it basically falls apart after about 20-30 minutes. Christensen takes shelter in a bluesy, atmospheric bar that magically has its own generator, which happens to be immune to the effects of the power-draining shadow force. And he, Leguziamo and two other survivors huddle there, arguing over what's going on and how to survive, until the film eventually lurches to a conclusion.
If you think that the idea of an hour or so of Hayden Christensen being trapped in a single room, bickering with three other people, might get tiresome... you're right.
Part of the problem is that The Vanishing on 7th. Street suffers from the same kind of "screenwriting via shorthand" thing that I've noticed in some recent episodes of V. It feels as though the characters are reading from the Cliffs Notes version of the script, because the writing is too lazy to explore the movie's ideas properly. And because there never really seems to be much hope, the characters' arguments about what to do next quickly seem pointless. Eventually, the bar's generator will run out of juice, or they'll make a break for it — either way, they're fucked.
Plus, the three other characters trapped with Christensen never rise above the level of lazy archetypes — there's Leguziamo's slightly scuzzy projectionist guy, the self-sacrificing mom who wants to find her missing daughter, and the scared little boy. Nothing ever happens to make you care about any of these people, even if they might be the last people on Earth.
After a while, the movie starts to resemble a particularly degraded reimagining of Sartre's No Exit, except that the presence of "other people" is really just hell for the audience.
And without giving too much away, the film's ending is a letdown too. It just sort of clatters to a halt, with not much in the way of resolution. (There is a sort of miracle towards the end, which may hint that the religious interpretation of events is right, but you could also just view it as a random happenstance.)
All in all, Vanishing on 7th. Street tries to reduce apocalyptic horror to its most essential themes — but instead, this film may just prove that apocalyptic horror has run out of steam. Or maybe that to make a low-budget apocalyptic film compelling, you need more than just random scary shit and darkness. You need a real story, real characters, and a real reason why all of this awfulness is happening. Otherwise, you've just got The Happening.