“Your real good thing is about to end” — Isaac Hayes and David Porter, Your Good Thing
“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper” — T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
For decades, Hollywood has taken upon itself the task of proving Eliot’s famous line of verse a lie. At the movies, the world ends on a regular basis, and almost always in as loud and violent a fashion as possible — which probably explains why Brad Anderson’s new post-apocalyptic chiller, Vanishing on 7th Street, is opening in mid-winter and not in June. The film begins a week-long engagement at the Shattuck Cinemas this Friday, February 25th.
Suspense specialist Anderson prefers to tell his tales of terror the old-fashioned way: via mood, atmosphere, and the power of suggestion. His 2001 feature, Session 9, was a carefully paced ghost story about workmen removing asbestos from an abandoned insane asylum, whilst 2004’s The Machinist was a chilly character study of a factory worker whose chronic insomnia has prevented him from sleeping for, literally, years. Not for Anderson are the alien invasions and massed zombie assaults of most contemporary shock shows.
Set in Detroit in the wake of a citywide blackout, Vanishing on 7th Street focuses on three adult characters: Paul (John Leguizamo), a movie projectionist in a downtown multiplex; Luke (Hayden Christensen, working hard to help us forget Anakin Skywalker), a TV reporter who wakes up to discover he’s the only person left in his apartment building; and Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a physical therapist whose shift has just ended when the lights go out.
The trio congregate at Sonny’s, a 7th Street bar ablaze with light thanks to a Civil Defense-era basement generator. It’s being stoked by 12-year old bartender’s son James ((Jacob Latimore, one of the better child actors of recent vintage), who’s waiting for his mother to return from a mission of mercy at a nearby church.
The mystery of the blackout and the apparent mass extinction — which affects only humans, as dogs, horses, and birds are left unharmed — intrigues in the abstract, but Vanishing on 7th Street becomes less interesting once its characters find each other and start talking. The middle of the film is heavy on dialogue, as Paul, Luke, and Rosemary try to come to terms with their predicament, posit theories about its cause, and ponder the nature of existence. Is the darkness a new law of nature, or is it of supernatural origin? Or is it a metaphor for Detroit’s disappearing manufacturing base?
Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski attempts to relate his story to that of the mysterious ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke’, a group of Virginia settlers who disappeared in 1590, leaving behind only a mysterious carving of a nonsense word, ‘Croatoan’. ‘Croatoan’ appears in the film as a graffito, but the legend is ultimately little more than a red herring here, and by film’s end we’re still as much in the dark as the characters are. A predictable final act escape attempt doesn’t help matters, and compares unfavorably to similar scenes in 28 Days Later and recent small-screen hit The Walking Dead.
On the plus side, Lucas Vidal’s score blends perfectly with the film’s sound effects to create a spooky aural soup of the highest order. Vanishing on 7th Street also looks great—an impressive accomplishment by cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, forced of necessity to work primarily in near darkness—whilst editor Jeffrey Wolf completely avoids the tiresome quick cutting we’ve come to expect in most contemporary genre pics. Though Vanishing on 7th Street probably won’t win Anderson very many new admirers, it’s not a complete dead end, either.
(Footnote: Sonny’s is located at the heavily symbolic corner of 7th Street and Seal Avenue. There’s no Seal Avenue in Detroit, and though the Motor City does have both a 6th and an 8th Street, there’s no 7th Street, either. And, apropos of nothing, this is probably the only horror film ever made that features a reference to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.)
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.