Last night was my third and final Midnight Madness screening at TIFF, not because I don't love the raw energy of the late-night crowd, but because that schedule takes its toll right quick. The first two films I saw-- James Gunn's Super, reviewed here, and Guy Moshe's Bunraku-- had me struggling both with the urge to sleep and the film's own issues with running time and pace. Enter, blessedly, Brad Anderson's Vanishing on 7th Street, a taut and spooky horror thriller that doesn't just keep the scares coming from moment to moment, but comes in at a lean 85 minutes to boot.

Don't get me wrong-- Vanishing is no masterpiece, and with its thin characterization and reliance on the same few scares over and over again, will be maddening for horror fans looking for something more original. But the movie is refreshingly in touch with its ambitions, coming up with the brilliant central gimmick of a villain that is just encroaching shadows with the power to make people disappear, and using it to turn an entire city into a menacing haunted house. We have no idea where these shadows came from or why, or even why there are a few survivors, gathering in a bar powered by a generator and scheming, somewhat futilely, how to escape.

Luke (Hayden Christensen), Rosemary (Thandie Newton), Paul (John Leguizamo) and young James (Jacob Latimore) are your typical band of squabbling strangers in a crisis, and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski doesn't try that hard to write them as truthful or fully-realized characters. Instead the film dedicates more time to watching them get threatened by and then escape the shadows, huddling in pools of light or by torches or glowsticks. Like any good haunted house movie Vanishing is just a series of escapes and near-misses, but Anderson keeps things pretty consistently visually interesting by switching up the locations and circumstances a bit. The movie, presumably made for pennies, plays off strikingly simple and terrifying images-- piles of clothes left where people stood before they disappeared, fingers and human shapes of shadow encroaching on our heroes, a guttering candle taking with it the last remaining hope for survival.

Amid all these elegant images, though, there are of course your typical hammy monologues about what these characters are fighting over, Newton's strident over-acting (when she's usually so restrained-- I blame the director), Christensen's utter lack of charisma, and a steady sense that you know exactly where this story will take you. From the perfect use of burned-out Detroit for its post-apocalyptic setting to the consistently creep animation of the shadows, though, Vanishing does enough things new to give the same old tale a fresh new gloss.

More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.

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