When it comes to making a scary movie, writers and directors typically choose to go one of two directions: horror or terror. Horror is putting the monster or killer right in your face and showing off their gruesome skills, replete with blood and guts. Terror, however, keeps what you fear in the shadows. You know something’s out there, but you’re not sure what. It’s all about the unknown, and the unknown is always scarier than the reality. It’s the latter that director Brad Anderson puts to good use in his newest film, Vanishing on 7th Street.
On one random day, nearly everyone on Earth disappears. Scattered throughout cities and towns are piles of clothes were people once stood. What’s more, the world is quickly finding itself plunging into darkness, the sun rising later and later every day. On the streets of Detroit, four survivors (Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and Jacob Latimore) have discovered that by possessing any light source – be it a flashlight or a glowstick – they can ward off the darkness and stop the darkness from abducting them. Holed up at a bar that stays lit thanks to a slowly dying generator, the four try to survive, not lose their minds, and figure out what is going on.
What makes the film work and ultimately succeed is atmosphere. While scary movies have always played on the idea of fearing what’s in the shadows, this movie, instead, turns the night itself into the malevolent force. Playing on the common fear of the dark, Vanishing on 7th Street reminds us why we requested nightlights as children. The purist sign of its strength, though, is not how the atmosphere makes you feel in the theater, but rather how it follows you as you head to your car.
Where the film falls short is in the performances Anderson gets from his cast. While the director’s last two films, The Machinist and Transsiberian were successful in both creating a creepy tone and eliciting a great performances from the actors, this production is not as well balanced. Christiansen, once again, puts on a flat performance and never seems convincingly scared about what’s going on around him (and simply yells a lot to distract the audience). Taking it to the opposite extreme is Newton, whose character’s calmest state can best be described as “less hysterical.” Leguizamo is probably the best of the adults, but then again most of his performance involves lying on a pool table and occasionally moaning in pain or calling someone’s name.
Also not helping is the overt use of Christian mythology. The entire premise behind the film is eerily similar to the concept of the rapture, where good souls are taken to heaven while the rest are left on Earth. The movie also isn’t shy about Adam and Eve analogies and even Newton’s character is given the opportunity to express herself as a stereotypical devout Christian before being shut down by Christiansen. It would be easier to tolerate if the film admitted its leanings, instead of covering it up with stories about the Roanoke Colony and “Croatoan,” but it instead tries to fit an elephant through a doggy door.
As a terror movie, Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street is effective in giving the audience chills and sticking with them as they leave the theater. Sadly every other aspect is a mess. With a more interesting group of characters and performers the film could have been great, but it instead squanders all of its potential.