Awash in end-of-the-world, apocalyptic imagery, the creepy Vanishing on 7th Street (2011) may just make you afraid of your own shadow.
Especially if you suspend disbelief and don’t dwell too deeply or too thoroughly about the exact nature of the film’s menace.
Now available “on demand,” this latest genre effort from director Brad Anderson (Session 9  and The Machinist ) commences with Paul (John Leguizamo), a film projectionist on the job, as he reads a book about inexplicable mysteries.
In short order, we get insert shots of the book’s interior, and our eyes register pages devoted to such topics as “the Roanoke Colony” and “dark matter.”
Then, in an instant, the world itself changes.
There’s a power outage and everyone sitting inside Paul’s theater vanishes, leaving their clothes and popcorn behind. Paul survives, but he seems to be the last man standing.
Elsewhere, another lone survivor named Luke (Hayden Christensen) soon discovers that the disappearances are apparently global and — worse than that — that something new and insidious seems to be dwelling inside the night: a kind of creeping blackness, a shadow life form.
At the news station where he worked, Luke sees his girlfriend Paige vanish on recorded videotape, in the middle of her weather report. In mid-sentence, she is just gone, and her clothes drop to the floor.
Soon, Paul, Luke, a little boy named James (Jacob Latimore) and a desperate woman named Rosemary (Thandie Newton) meet up at the only urban establishment that still has electricity and light: Sonny’s Happy Hour Bar. There, they feed a gas generator constantly, and discuss ways to escape the city. They also have plenty of time to ponder what might have happened to the world.
Most disturbingly, as Luke reports, the sun has been coming up later and going down earlier each day, meaning that the spell of darkness is expanding. And, creepily the shadow figures dwelling in the dark seem to know everything about you, and can trick you by imitating the voice of your dead brother or the cries of your missing baby. They want to lure you into the darkness…
Paul believes that something similar happened to the Roanoke Colony circa 1590, and that these survivors are now experiencing “the last spin on the reel,” (like a film projector powering down…); that God has “closed-up shop.”
Utilizing a surfeit of gloomy night exteriors and foreboding, doom-laden high-angles, Anderson throws the viewer right into the middle of this strange and unsettling mystery. Many of Anderson’s shots in Vanishing on 7th Street also boast some remarkable depth too; featuring the looming “Darkness” spilling over surfaces like a flood, and holding up for us shadows that appear oddly familiar; distinct.
It’s as though the vanished people have been taken, yet their mobile, malevolent shadows remain here on Earth as sentinels. Many shots also feature creeping darkness spilling over walls and bridges like an unending supply of black paint, descending irrevocably upon terrorized, doomed characters.
The idea of creeping blackness devouring matter and light is not new. It was vetted brilliantly (and with hair-raising horror…) some thirty years ago in Sapphire and Steel’s second serial, set at an abandoned train station. And, *ahem*, I myself used dark matter and the Roanoke disappearance as narrative connections in the second season of my web series, The House Between (2007 – 2009), particularly in the episodes “Distressed” and “Ruined.”
Yet, as I always like to point out, it’s not necessarily the originality of a story that’s important; it’s the way the story is depicted that counts. Vanishing on 7th Street successfully evokes such end of the world films as The Omega Man (1971) and Night of the Comet (1984) and goes about its business with a grim, almost choking atmosphere. Like The Birds, for instance there are no easy answers offered here, and in the dark half-light of the movie we are left to interpret what occurs for ourselves.
I appreciate that ambiguous aspect of the film very much. Rosemary raises the issue “is this Hell?” and certainly there’s the “left behind” allusion here. By contrast, Luke suggests “there’s no reason” for the vanishing, and that it is simply “random.” From this sense of ambiguity comes audience uncertainty and involvement, and Anderson makes the most of those feelings.
For me, I came away with the distinct sense that this is literally a disaster of Biblical proportions; a religious apocalypse in the most fundamentalist sense. Those who survive the initial vanishing are “fallen” or “sinners,” at least under a certain microscope. Luke left his wife to pursue his career (and Paige). Rosemary was a drug addict who ultimately turned her life around, etc.
And those who make it to the last act in the film (set in a church, to put a fine point on it…) are the ones who boast innocence, purity, and love.
Finally, the character names Luke, Paul and James specifically recall Scripture, so I felt these monikers were also a sub-textual hint about the nature of the “event” as well.
None of this information qualifies as a spoiler, however, because it would be just as easy to read the mystery another way; with another point of view. Someone could have an entirely different theory from mine, and still make it work.
The creeping darkness makes for a splendid visual menace in Vanishing on 7th Street, and Anderson handles it ably. The problem, however, is that — as one character states — “the math doesn’t add up.” If the survivors go into the darkness without a light, they vanish. Fine. Well, how much light are we talking about here, and what kind of light?
How pitch black must it be for the shadow creatures to take you away? For instance, the film features a gorgeous shot of the moon over the eerie, empty city. But moonlight is light, right? And, isn’t it dark inside your pocket? Or under your hat? Or in the shadow of the bathroom door? When people stand next to each other, they sometimes eclipse light as well…
On close scrutiny, the concept of using light as a protection from creatures that ARE the dark isn’t fully fleshed out or believable. This is an occasion where ambiguity is a bad thing. The characters state things like “There are no known laws of Physics operating here” for cover. You may or may not be willing to buy that, especially when a character’s survival depends on knowing the light/dark ratio necessary to continue living.
Also, I have a big problem that the characters — generally well-portrayed as intelligent, resourceful survivors — never think to set the city on fire, even when they create makeshift torches. You want light? You want to escape? Take the city down! There aren’t any other survivors there, so it wouldn’t be murder.
Instead, setting a fire would be a guaranteed way to keep the darkness at bay for a good long time, I would think.
I remember when people complained about Mark Wahlberg being chased by the wind in The Happening (2008), and in some way, this is a similarly nebulous — if more overtly visual — threat. As neat as it looks, and as creepy as it is, it’s hard to parse in a way that makes sense.
And yet — and this is a big “and yet” — the movie is really about spiritual uncertainty; about the need to cry out “I exist” before your flame is finally snuffed out.
In fostering a feeling of spiritual catastrophe, of existential angst, of faith or lack thereof, it is not necessary for the threat to make conventional, scientific sense, one might argue. God Moves in Mysterious Ways and We Do Not Understand Them. That’s sort of the point, I submit, and though I generally hate that idea because I think it’s a dramatic cheat (see: Battlestar Galactica’s finale…), in short form like a 90 minute movie I find it far less objectionable than as the solution to a multi-season mystery (also see: The Lost finale).
If it sounds like I’m on the fence about Vanishing on 7th Street, you’ve got the picture. For me, this could be the ultimate two-and-a-half star movie. Almost — but not quite — good. I could watch it again in a year from now, and it could drop down to a two star rating or move up to a three, if that makes sense.
What I enjoy most about Vanishing on 7th Street is that Anderson doesn’t spoon feed the audience answers. And he doesn’t slather on unnecessary action sequences or special effects just to make the movie punchy or pacey.
For the most part, this is a mood movie about four people who end up in a bar together after the rest of the world has disappeared, and wonder what the hell happened. It’s a perfect Twilight Zone premise, and the execution is good even if I don’t quite buy all those moments in which the shadows creep up and almost get a protagonist, then a character crosses into the light and it retracts. Somehow it feels too easy; to simple.
But aside from the specifics, I enjoyed the dark, heavy, unsettling tone of Vanishing on 7th Street. Over the end credits, you even hear the lyrics to “Your Good Thing,” which ominously suggest “Your real good thing is about to come to an end.”
That’s a perfect, chill-inducing note to go out on; and to unquiet your slumber for a night.