Wednesday, August 31, 2011

DVD Review: Vanishing on 7th Street

Vanishing on 7th Street **Directed by: Brad Anderson.
Written by: Anthony Jaswinski.
Starring: Hayden Christensen (Luke), John Leguizamo (Paul), Thandie Newton (Rosemary), Jacob Latimore (James), Taylor Groothuis (Briana).

Pulling off good, low budget horror is a tricky proposition. You have to do what Hollywood filmmakers do with way less money, as you really cannot afford to make special effects laden movies, or have creatures with the same impact. Instead, you have to do everything with mood and atmosphere, and depend on your cast to generate that same level of terror. Brad Anderson proved he could that with his brilliant, underrated gem Session 9 a few years ago, and to a lesser extent with The Machinist (which wasn’t really horror, but had horror elements). But with Vanishing on 7th Street, I don’t think he succeeded the way he wanted to. To be sure, he tries really hard, and the mood is just about right, but there is an air of phoniness around the film. I could never quite buy into it, and so it left me cold.

The film is about a blackout that hits the city of Detroit (and it appears much more). Anyone caught in the blackout is immediately vaporized, leaving behind just their clothes. But a few survivors are lucky enough to be spared. These are those rare people who had some sort of light on them when the blackout began – flashlights, candles, cigarette lighter. The days since the blackout more and more people keep dying, because they need to stay in the light, as while there are days that interrupt the total blackness of night, they are getting shorter, and soon will be gone altogether. Car batteries seem to have been killed by whatever caused the blackout as well, so in essence, the few survivors are stuck in Detroit, afraid of the dying of the light.

The one location that still has power is a bar called Sonny’s. It is operating on a generator, although how much longer that will last is not known. While they have plenty of gas, the generator seems to be winding down anyway. The bar is manned by James (Jacob Latimore), a young boy who was there with his mother, who left to try and find help, and has not returned. Slowly other survivors come across Sonny’s – Luke (Hayden Christensen), a selfish news reporter, Rosemary (Thandie Newton) a recovering addict, convinced her infant son is still alive somewhere, and Paul (John Leguizamo), a shy film projectionist. They are drawn to Sonny’s, but Luke knows they have to leave while they still can. If they wait much longer, it won’t be an option anymore.

In theory, Vanishing on 7th Street has a perfect setup for a low budget horror film. Afterall, there is nothing scarier than what you can’t see – and the pervasive darkness of the film means you cannot see much. And also, darkness doesn’t cost anything to shoot, meaning you can (and they did) make the film for very little money.

And yet, the movie never really gave me goosebumps – never truly scared me. While Anderson gets the atmosphere right, he doesn’t really do anything with it once he has established it. There are moments that should generate almost unbearable tension that simply fall flat. It doesn’t help that it is impossible to care about any of the characters – Luke is a selfish prick, marred by the usual Christensen reluctance to express any emotion, Paul is so closed down it’s impossible to get a read on him, and this is further hampered by the fact he spends most of the movie lying on a pool table, and Rosemary is just over the top crazy at first, and then settles into a clich├ęd addict role that feels unnatural. True, you do feel for James, who has lost his mother, but he never really feels like a real character either.

In short, Vanishing on 7th Street is a movie with a promising premise that fails to live up to it. Anderson is a talented director, and I’m sure he’ll do better in the future, but this time he failed to scare me – and for a horror film, that’s deadly.

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