Thursday, February 3, 2011

In Theaters: "Vanishing on 7th Street"

Brad Anderson is a gifted filmmaker, equally adroit at comedy (Next Stop Wonderland), drama (The Machinist), and suspense (Session 9). God knows why he’s wasting his time with a piece of horror hack-work like Vanishing on 7th Street, a thriller as dull and generic as it is forgettable. Anderson mates the expected elements—darkness, solitude, unreliable lights, things hiding in the shadows, a soundtrack of half-heard whispers and screams—with a kind of secular Left Behind plotline, then plants the entire enterprise squarely on the shoulders of two leads who seem locked in a competition to see who can be less convincing.

Hayden Christensen stars (lose ya yet?) as Luke, a TV reporter who finds himself wandering a world where almost everyone has vanished and the shadows are eager to suck in more lost souls. The moment of that vanishing, and the blackout that accompanies it, comes in the film’s opening (and best) scene, with John Leguizamo playing Paul, a film projectionist (with a light attached to his forehead, miner-style) who wanders out of the booth when the power’s gone out, only to find the auditorium and lobby deserted. (Everyone’s clothing is neatly laid out on chairs and on the floors, which is a pretty goofy touch.) Paul and Luke both end up at an abandoned bar, powered by generators. Also waiting out the dark are Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a young mother who has lost her baby, and James (Jacob Latimore), whose mother tends bar at the establishment and who has also disappeared.

Anderson knows from atmosphere and dread, and there are isolated scares—a neat trick with a foreground shadow at the end of the opening sequence, the creepy roving shadows (reminiscent of the demons in Ghost). He throws in some memorable directorial touches as well, like the rhythmic extinguishing of church candles late in the film, or the way Leguizamo sings along with the jukebox as he lays out, injured, on the bar’s pool table. But the picture is oddly bereft of tension; there are no real stakes, because the people involved are so summarily uninteresting, and because the central situation seems such a bland construct.

And speaking of bland, how about that Hayden Christensen, eh? Yes, he’s just as terrible as ever, every line reading either a total blank or an empty yell, and he’s well-matched by another screeching, overwrought turn by Newton. (Seriously, the overacting on this one.) They’re both black holes of charisma and empathy, so their teary confessionals late in the film are particularly egregious; personally, I was rooting for the shadow monsters.

Leguizamo is enjoyable (he always is), Latimore is a real find, and the photography is snazzy—all dense blacks and drained saturation. Anderson occasionally gets a bit of suspense going, but for what purpose? Vanishing on 7th Street is centered on such a pair of ciphers, we frankly can’t be bothered to care. Anderson has directed good films before, and certainly will again. But he can do far, far better than this.

"Vanishing on 7th Street" opens Friday in limited release. It is currently available on demand.

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