By Gabe Toro | The Playlist February 18, 2011 at 4:33AM
Rules. We sign a contract when we enter the theater, a contract usually based on an awareness of plot, genre, or even title. We expect certain elements to be present in a movie, certain laws the universe we witness abides, understands, and even subtly subverts. The horror genre differs in that it tries to reach out to universal uncertainty, to the sensations of the unknown.
The beginning of "Vanishing On 7th Street" is aware of this need, as director Brad Anderson is no stranger to the genre. Anderson brought the unknowability of grief and harm to the forefront in the moody, atmospheric "Session 9" and "The Machinist." And here, in the opening moments, Anderson is working with that guilt in very specific terms.
First, we see a movie theater projectionist coping with the disappearance of an entire mall filled with patrons. This is followed by a lead newscaster rising to an empty apartment building and eventually an apocalyptic deserted city. In both cases, there's an acute bit of characterization that casts doubt over the supernatural happenings. We can tell the projectionist (John Leguizamo) has long harbored an unrequited crush on the girl working the concessions stand, so to see her, and the rest of the theater, disappear, it's as if he is being punished for his failure to follow his instincts.
Furthermore, a few quick shots establish that the newsman (Hayden Christiansen) is something of a star, certainly someone who's placed his good looks to use. Because we see him survive this initial attack (it appears as if shadows have swallowed the earth whole, taking the bodies of innocents and leaving behind piles of clothing), his horror is more acute. Here is one of the most recognizable local faces stumbling upon a city intersection of crashed cars and abandoned wardrobe, now the only man in a world where his looks no longer register as any sort of currency. This is punctuated by the booming explosion of a 747 plummeting to the streets. It's a good start.
Unfortunately, now come the rules. What was once initially a frightening, broad hypothetical (the dark is out to get us) becomes a near-stagebound affair, as the newscaster and the projectionist find themselves walled up in a bar in a nowhere town day later, hoping against hope that they can formulate a plan. The darkness has diminished the hours of sunlight per day, and electricity has been swallowed by the malevolent force, and this establishment is safe harbor. While they become friendly with an overtasked recovering junkie (Thandie Newton) and a naive but spirited young boy (Jacob Latimore), they try to devise a plan based on what they know.
And what they know feels like a checklist than actual realizations built from surviving on the run for days against what is hinted to be a slasher-version of the scientific phenomena known as dark matter. And suddenly, what was once unknown is now very known - it can be avoided by excessive lights, but it feeds on battery. It can often create hallucinations to lure you in. About the only unknown is specifically about ensuring our heroes stay alive, and the film's biggest lingering question - why are they still alive?
By keeping us in the dark (rimshot), this film could have been an avant-garde horror masterpiece. It's the insistence on spelling out some, but not all, plot points that dooms the film to becoming a nonsensical race-against-time. If the sunlight is diminishing every day, and eventually all electricity will run out, then humanity's gonna need some superpowers to survive, and this crew doesn't seem to have those abilities. If this is the case, why drum up suspense with chase sequences involving characters literally trying to outrun shadows, when you'd find a more fruitful approach in establishing the existential hopelessness of the situation?
Matters aren't helped by Christiansen and Newton being paired up. Newton is a skilled actress capable of great dramatic range, a spectrum which, if not probably directed, she will run up and down, hysterical and muted. Christiansen, meanwhile, has established that he's not so much an actor as he is an action figure, and the next convincing moment he has onscreen playing a newscaster, weatherman, action hero or intergalactic villain will be the first. Leguizamo, oddly miscast as a character likely two decades Leguizamo's junior, has a slightly less demanding role, as his character is injured early and spends most of the film on his back. Nice work if you can get it.
While Anderson's previous films seemed hard-wired to deal with the poisons implicit in knowing and not knowing the truth, "Vanishing On 7th Street" is all apocalyptic posturing with no sense of what it means. Instead of people standing on the chasm that is our final days of existence, they bicker, reminisce and move like chess pieces, consistently reminding themselves how to best follow the "rules." Perhaps we should instill this rule into Hollywood itself: no more post-apocalyptic movies. That way, when one comes along and has nothing of interest to share, it will at least utilize the element of surprise. [D]