Fade to black: “Vanishing on 7th Street”

January 10, 2011

When you’ve got a movie that stars Hayden Christensen and Thandie Newton , well, it’s a dilemma. On the one hand, I’d gladly plunk down 20 bucks to watch Thandie Newton balance her checkbook, in 2D even. On the other hand, Hayden Christensen usually sucks so bad that the massive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy gets envious.  So what do you do? It’s like being promised a maple waffle-on-a-stick, but you have to eat it buried neck deep in a vat of the carnivorous worms from Squirm. Vanishing on 7th Street presented me with precisely this dilemma. Of course, the fact that the movie hasn’t been released yet gives it some added cache, but mainly I had to decide if Thandie Newton is worth suffering the guy who screwed up the Star Wars prequels (one of them anyway). All I can say is: Thandie, if you’re reading this: I would gladly brave a vat of worms to devour the waffle-on-a-stick that is you (okay, that came out wrong).

Vanishing on 7th Street has a great hook worthy of a classic Twilight Zone episode: Three separate characters living in Detroit emerge from some kind of seclusion (one is asleep, one is in a closet sneaking a smoke, one is a movie theater projectionist), and discover that everyone has vanished.  No, they didn’t just beat feet, they freaking disappeared, leaving their clothes and possessions behind. In an image that the movie never tops, a physical therapist (Thandie) finds an operating room empty, except for the patient, who is slowly waking up to discover his chest is still cracked open just before he himself vanishes.

Faster than you can say Left Behind, our characters end up in an abandoned bar (not a bad idea, really) which serves as a refuge to yet another survivor, an adolescent kid named James, whose mother worked at the bar. The story has lurches forward a couple days by this point (it’s not made real clear in the movie either), and everyone has, in their own way, discovered the same thing: the darkness is taking people. The world seems to exist in a perpetual night (daytime comes, but it is shorter and shorter every day), and the only way to stave off the darkness is with light (well, duh). Problem is, the city’s power grid is fracked, so light is getting harder to harder to come by. Especially when you have to run between the shadows.

In the bar—which is fortuitously equipped with a generator—Luke (Christensen, last seen as the least convincing White Negro in Takers), Rosemary (Thandie), and James (Jacob Latimore) care for an injured Paul (John Leguizamo). Paul has suffered a head wound in the course of being taken by whatever it is that’s been depopulating the world. Unfortunately, he can’t tell them much about it, except that he heard whispers. Luke has come up with a little more information via a newsfeed from Chicago by someone who warns them that dark will try and trick them and not to trust any light but the one in their hand. This is enough to plant the idea in Luke’s mind that that they steal a truck and drive it to Chicago. It’s not a great idea, but no one has any better ones.

From here, the movie moves into its endgame, as the cast gets winnowed down by the enveloping tendrils of darkness. Some freaky stuff happens. Rosemary is lured into the dark by the sound of her baby’s cries. Paul’s sense of reality is manipulated as he imagines himself fleeing the darkness  down a corridor to nowhere, when in reality he’s still sprawled out on a pool table. Eventually, Luke does get a truck working and rescues Paul, but then Paul spots the church where he think s his mom is and makes a run for that. Luke goes after him and gets snatched. In the church, Paul meets a little girl who has survived by using a solar-powered flashlight. When the weak sun rises, they find an abandoned police horse and ride it toward Chicago. Fin.

Bit of a letdown, huh? The problem with supernatural mysteries is that you have two not-terribly-promising choices on how to end them. Either you explain the mystery and thus drain it of much of its terror, or you leave it unexplained and frustrate the crap out of the audience. Vanishing goes the latter route. It’s easier from a screenwriting standpoint (“how do we explain this? Um…fuck it, we don’t”), but tougher from a directorial one, since he’s the one who has to convince you that he hasn’t just been wasting your time. And this is how screenwriter Andrew Jaswinski basically screws over director Brad Anderson. Obviously, I don’t know this is the fact, but Anderson made the superbly creepy Session 9, and Jaswinski has made…um…pretty much nothing.  Rod Serling excelled at these kinds of scripts, usually by making them either an allegory for some social issue or as a character study.

Jaswinski does neither with his script. There is some callback to Luke’s incantation, “I exist…I exist,” in the face of what would seem to be oblivion (though, it’s really not since non-human physical things and animals survive the event), but the movie doesn’t do enough with it to make the inconclusive ending remotely satisfying. Jaswinski also throws in some lip-service to the vanished Roanoke colony and the word CROATOAN, but that historical oddity doesn’t really amount to anything.  Conceptually, the movie doesn’t seem to have been completely thought-out, either. Trying to film inky fingers of shadow amid, well, darkness makes for a visual challenge Anderson doesn’t completely surmount, though he does build some fairly effective moments of tension and suspense. And, um, isn’t this the same plot as Darkness Falls?

On top of that, there are some major casting problems. First you’ve got Thandie Newton as a recovering junkie. Okay, does anybody buy that? Anyone? I figured not. I mean, that’s like casting Audrey Hepburn as a crack whore. Some actresses just have an ethereal beauty that you can’t smother. As Luke, Christensen is pretty much a one-note jerk (can he play anything else?), as opposed, maybe, to a man trying to wrap his brain around the unimaginable. When he meets Rosemary for the first time, he basically shouts her into submission, which is really not the way a normal male would respond to Thandie (for the record, if it was me, I’d be all like: “Hi. So, um, we probably should get started on that whole ‘repopulate the world’ thing, huh? Think this jukebox has any Sade…”)

So, there you have Vanishing on 7th Street. I should point out that the actual vanishing extends beyond 7th street. So, see, even the title is a screw up.


  1. I’m not sure what was more confusing, the movie or this guys review. He mixed up the names of the characters making John Leguizamo character Paul seem like a paedophile. It was the little boy James that left with the little girl at the end of the movie.

    • Reviewer:(whoever you are)
      I just watched this movie for the first time on netflix. Your “review” confused me more than the plot of the film.
      On several occasions, you praise Thandie Newton like she is the greatest thing since sliced bread. You also overstate your disgust of Hayden Christensen. Sure the plot is largely borrowed and confused, but your review reminds me of a 12 year old’s recap of the tale. Your obvious bias makes your opinion as a reviewer irrelevant.

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