Sunday, June 09, 2013

30 Days of Nightmares #9: VANISHING ON 7th STREET (2011)

The Story: A major blackout in Detroit leaves a small group of survivors searching for answers and running from shadows.  (I know, this is a vague synopsis... but, trust me, it's better that way.)

Expectations: I was imagining something like a supernatural version of THE TRIGGER EFFECT.  With Brad (SESSION 9) Anderson in the director's chair, I figured on plenty of well-crafted suspense. The cast also seemed promising.  I'm not crazy about Hayden Christensen, but I like John Leguizamo and Thandie Newton.

Reaction: The film plays out a classic TWILIGHT ZONE "what if" scenario.  What if everyone in the world suddenly disappeared... and the shadows came alive? The visual effect of the "shadow people" reminds me a bit of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film KAIRO, about a computer virus that turns people into Rorschach ink stains on the wall.  That sounds silly, but it's pretty unnerving because the filmmaker knows how to create an atmosphere of existential dread.  In the end, KAIRO takes an emotional toll by providing an emotional approximation of purgatory, devoid of hope and meaning.  It leaves you with the overwhelming feeling that life is full of suffering and death is not the end. 

VANISHING ON 7th STREET is not as powerful, although the filmmaker seems to be aiming at more or less the same effect.   This too is a film about entropy.  Ever see THE NEVERENDING STORY?  The shadow people in this movie are kind of like The Nothing... They consume everything.  When four survivors are finally boxed in by the encroaching darkness, one of them decides that their only hope is to will themselves to keep existing

It's a great intellectual premise, but it doesn't quite work because none of the characters seem particularly strong-willed, and no other attempt is made to explain what's going on.   I like a good existential mystery as much as anyone, but I need something to hold onto.  What caused everyone else to disappear?  John Leguizamo talks smack about particle physics and the Lost Colony of Roanoke... but mostly he seems like a paranoid crank who didn't know what was going on in the world before everyone else disappeared.  Why are only these four people left?  Thandie Newton talks about how "we've all done bad things" and suggests that maybe they are being punished... but, since the film never offers any details about those "bad things," it seems like she's just paying lip service to an old horror movie cliche.  How do these characters grow and change over the course of the story?  They don't, really.  At the beginning of the film, Hayden Christiansen is a self-absorbed jerk (it takes him a ridiculously long time to even notice that everyone around him has literally disappeared), and in the end he tries to save a kid... and that too seems like a half-hearted concession to a familiar storytelling structure.

There's no question Brad Anderson knows how to create a creepy atmosphere, but this movie illustrates that you can't really frighten viewers unless you create a believable story with sympathetic characters.  One of the most obvious -- and most frequently overlooked -- truths in horror cinema is that characterization is everything.  Even in a bad zombie movie, you can only have one or two characters falling for the delusion that the zombies are still their friends and loved ones, then getting eaten because they're too blind to accept the truth.... If everyone behaves that way, then they deserve to get eaten.  In VANISHING, when the shadows try to lure the characters to their deaths by whispering familiar or convenient truths, every... single... character... falls for that shit.   After a while, I realized I was watching a movie about a group of people who deserve to die became they can't cope with the new reality.   Maybe I was supposed to be horrified by that realization.  Instead, I was left feeling that an ambitious setup like this deserves stronger characters.

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: For me, the movie peaked early, when I realized that the shadows were alive.... and constantly reaching out for the living, like the shadow of Nosferatu.  It's a brilliant concept, and the visual effects work well.

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