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Vanishing on 7th Street (2011)

Vanishing on 7th Street has so much going for it, I vacillate between feeling bad that I can’t quite recommend it and feeling enraged that it’s not as good as it should be. For most of its runtime, it’s a film of great style, great performances, and thoughtful explorations of well-worn character types. It punctuates intense dialogue scenes with thrilling moments of action and horror. It has one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen (even if it borrows a bit from the first Left Behind book—though, thankfully, it doesn’t slide into hokey fundamentalist propaganda). It’s the type of movie I’d enthusiastically recommend if not for two things: its shadow people, and its ending.

Who are the shadow people? Believe me—I’m not ruining anything by telling you. What should serve the film well as its Big Mystery is revealed in the first few minutes via awful CGI reminiscent of the demon ghosts in 1990’s Ghost (forgivable there because CGI was new and confusing, and it was never really trying to be a scary horror movie). You see, that oh-so-effective opening sequence finds three disparate characters discovering they may be the only people left on Earth. A nighttime power outage plunges the world into darkness, and everyone disappears. The eerie sight of clothing piles and crashed cars (and, in one well-rendered moment, a plane crash) is a phenomenal hook.

Within three days, the world is plunged into eternal darkness. Our characters have learned enough to know the only thing keeping them alive is light. Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV news reporter, strings a dozen flashlights to a rope he wears around his neck. Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a single mother horrified by the disappearance of her son, carries glow sticks. Paul (John Leguizamo), a bitter genius underachiever working as a movie projectionist, cowers in fear under a bus shelter with a solar-powered light. Before long, they find themselves drawn to a bar on the eponymous 7th Street. Its music-blaring jukebox and bright lights act as a beacon for these desperate moths—unfortunately, it’s protected by a foul-mouthed, shotgun-toting tween, James (Jacob Latimore). His mother got a gas generator running before going out in search of food—and never returning.

That’s pretty much the setup. The rest of the movie mostly revolves around these four characters trapped in the bar, trying to figure out what has happened and why. But the shadows tip the film’s hand far too quickly. Every time the characters venture out of the bar, or even into a shadowy corner of the bar itself, the shadows appear, inching toward our survivors, then “running” away when the characters turn around or aim their lights in the direction of the shadows. It’s meant to scare and build suspense, but it’s hard to do either when it looks like something out of Fantasia.

On some level, I can understand why director Brad Anderson (or possibly someone else in the editing room) decided to insert these shadows. The theory of suspense is that the audience needs to know more than the characters, who spend their time ruminating on what could have caused this while remaining largely ignorant of the shadow people trying to snatch them. The shadows just look too silly; that’s the only problem with them, but it significantly hobbles what could have been a terrific thriller. I would have preferred to discover what’s happening along with the characters rather than having it “foreshadowed” via bad special effects.

And then there’s the ending, which I won’t ruin, but I will say this: It’s an eye-rolling twist with a comically on-the-nose “go-green” message. I honestly think it could have worked with a bit more subtlety. The imagery of the final sequence kind of works; it’s just the dialogue that goes along with it that practically screams, “GET IT?!

All that said, I can easily see this as a movie plenty of people will like. I liked a lot of it. I liked that the movie tosses four genre clichés in a room for most of its runtime and lets them turn into real people instead of stereotypes. Part of this comes from Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, but the bulk of it comes from the performances. John Leguizamo is, as usual, the best part of a bad movie, committing so deeply to his self-righteous nerd that he almost seems physically burdened by the lifetime of rage and disappointment clouding his every thought. Christensen and Newton both surprised me. My exposure to them has been limited to the Star Wars prequels in his case, and Mission: Impossible II in hers, and they’re both uniformly awful there. The fact that they give solid performances in a film that’s mostly dialogue- and character-driven either shows plenty of growth for them as actors, or shows that they have the right director. Whatever the case, they’re worthy of praise. Even Latimore does a pretty good job with the most stereotypical of the characters (he’s never really given the chance to rise above the “wise-beyond-his-years kid” trope).

Overall, Vanishing on 7th Street isn’t terrible—it just doesn’t quite succeed in the areas it clearly wants to. It’s the sort of film that seems destined for repeat airings on Syfy weekends, an entertaining enough diversion without quite being good enough to recommend.

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