A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2011


2011, PG-13, 91 mins.


Hayden Christenson: Luke /  Thandie Newton: Rosemary / John Leguizamo: Paul / Jacob Latimore: James 


Directed by Brad Anderson / Written by Anthony Jaswinski

VANISHING ON 7TH STREET is a spookily effective end-of-days/religious thriller that gets by greatly on its high concept premise told via minimalist means.  It absconds from obligatory hack and slash gore and cheap scares and instead opts for shock and awe suspense and a chillingly evocative sensation of dread and anxiety.  For those reasons, VANISHING ON 7TH STREET emerges as an effectively creepy and unnerving old school paranoia thriller where its atmosphere and prevailing sense of apocalyptic doom are its chief assets first and foremost. 

The film’s opening is sensationally chilling and unsettling: In Detroit resides a lowly and shy movie theater projectionist named Paul (John Leguizamo) that takes his duties seriously, so seriously in fact that he seems incapable of picking up on the flirtatious cues of an attractive concession girl.  During one fateful day a power outage hits the shopping mall cinema and the inquisitive Paul leaves his booth to investigate.  He discovers, to his horror, that every human soul around him has literally dematerialized and has vanished.  All that is left behind are piles of clothing and personal effects from the missing people.  Beyond that hellish discovery, Paul learns that all of the electricity has been completely neutralized as well.  He is alone in darkness. 

Meanwhile, a TV news anchor named Luke (Hayden Christenson, who played father to Luke in the STAR WARS prequels) emerges from his bed in the morning to find that he has no electrical power in his high-rise apartment.  Even his cell phone has no reception.  Not fully understanding what has happened, Luke leaves his suite and heads down to the apartment lobby and into the streets when he – like Paul did as well – comes to the realization that all the people around him have vanished, leaving behind – yup – just their clothes and personal effects.  The citywide cataclysm really hits home for poor Luke when a pilot-less plane crashes straight down to the ground a few blocks away from him (during one of the film’s great gasp-inducing moments that frighteningly echoes 9/11).  At this point he gathers himself together and heads for the TV station to track down his missing girlfriend, hoping that she too has not been whisked away to…to…well…who the hell knows where. 

The story then flash forwards three days where we reconnect with Luke, who is now wearing a raincoat covered in flashlights.  Why?  It appears that the sun has completely disappeared during what should be peak daylight hours and omnipresent shadows of all kinds of supernatural and disturbing forms seem to prey upon any live human that is not consumed by total darkness.  Luke does manage to find what appears to be the only safe haven away from the dangerous shadows, a bar on 7th Street that miraculously appears to have electricity.   

As he enters he eventually comes across a shotgun wielding boy named James (Jacob Latimore) who has been holding up in the bar (powered by its basement generator) awaiting for his mother’s return.  As Luke and James acquaint themselves – after a very awkward and tense standoff – a woman named Rosemary (Thandie Newton) enters the bar screaming that she can’t find her missing child.  Then a head-traumatized Paul emerges and, with Luke’s aid, is given safe haven at the bar.  As the four of them get settled in they all try to come to understand the impossibility of their situation: Is the Rapture occurring?  Are they dead?  Are they in hell or purgatory?  Are the vanishings a product of an alien invasion?  Or, as Paul compellingly deduces, do the vanishings have some dreadful parallels to, of all things, the fate of the missing people from the lost colony of Roanoke from centuries past?  Whatever the reasons are for the deadly phenomenon around them, Luke and company begin to realize that the light is the only thing saving them from a grisly fate, but with the bar’s generators slowly failing and a lack of battery power from their flashlights, the end seems to be horrifyingly near. 

One thing that the film thanklessly does not engage in is precisely spelling out the particulars of the story’s doomsday occurrences.  It never truly pinpoints down what the ghost-like shadows and monstrous darkness are or where they come from, not to mention that the film does not waste time rationalizing how the shadows are able to essentially devour humans right out of their clothing.  I think that what VANISHING ON 7TH STREET does exceedingly well is to dissect one of the most common of all human phobias – fear of the dark and fear of being in the dark without knowing what precisely is creeping up on you – to haunting effect.  In a way, the film becomes more textured and intriguing as a cerebral and emotionally trying experience.  Even better, the film understands – whereas most others fail – that real fear often emerges from what we don’t fully understand or can see for that matter. 

The cast of the film is uniformly thankless, considering the full range of breathless and overly apprehensive urgency they are required to bring to their respective roles.  I especially liked Newton’s turn as a woman that is distraught beyond normal recognition regarding not just her lost baby, but for how the darkness may have taken her baby from her.  John Leguizamo gives his projectionist a sense of fidgety, white knuckled panic.  Young John Latimore commends himself with a real poise and assuredness playing a 12-year-old that is placed within a nightmarish predicament.  And Hayden Christenson himself – an actor that many critics take pride in ripping apart – proves here as he did in films like SHATTERED GLASS and LIFE AS A HOUSE that he is capable of strong, vigorous performances...when given the opportunity.  Mannequin Skywalker he ain't. 

VANISHING ON 7TH STREET was directed by the Canuck filmmaker Brad Anderson, who previously and perhaps most famously directed Christian Bale to insanely obsessive levels of dedication to performance art in THE MACHINIST, which also featured characters on the cusp of feverous uncertainty and mental collapse.  With cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, Anderson creates a low budget thriller that looks richer and more persuasive than efforts twice their film’s cost.  Using sepia-soaked screen canvases, judicious use of light and ominous shadows, and run-down exteriors and interiors, Anderson and his crew give VANISHING ON 7TH STREET an aura of nail-biting unease and psychological horror.  The piercing cords of Spanish composer Lucas Vidal’s Bernard Hermann-esque score compliment the film's look nicely. 

VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, on a negative, is not altogether original on an inception front: it’s essentially a George A. Romero zombie film minus zombies and its trapped-in-a-building-with-no-where-else-to-go aesthetic is ripped right from B-grade pleasures like ASSAULT ON PRESCIENT 13.  That, and the characters in Anderson’s film seem to make increasingly silly choices as the story progresses, especially when normal, modestly headstrong people facing their same predicament would behave more sensibly.  Nonetheless, I was surprised and thoroughly taken in by how distressingly effective and immersive VANISHING ON 7TH STREET was as a stylish, economically envisioned, and nerve-jangling mood piece.  Leaving the theatre and walking down a dark and dreary sidewalk to your car may be difficult after watching it.

  H O M E