FEBRUARY 3, 2011
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (PRESS SCREENING)
Fact: I was afraid of the dark for quite a long time. I don’t think I fully got over it until like late in high school. So if Vanishing On 7th Street had come out like 15 years ago, I’d probably consider it to be the scariest movie of all time, as that’s pretty much all it is – people having a reason to be afraid of the dark. Also, I was less discerning back then; as a teen I might not have noticed/minded that the movie is often repetitive and far too minimalist. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by things I thought could have been improved.
For starters, there are way too few people in the movie, and they meet up too quickly on top of that. I think the movie would have worked a bit better if they had kept the characters separate for a little longer, because those scenes were far more exciting/scary than the ones of all four of them sitting around a generator-powered bar with an incredibly annoying jukebox (it takes like an hour for someone to finally point out what a waste of power it was). Safety is in numbers, after all, so anytime they're all together you can be guaranteed nothing much will happen to them. The early scenes (pre-meeting up) also gave the movie a bit more visual flavor, as it’s a really loose version of a single-location film. If you’re going to do the single location thing, fine – but stuck with it, not just sort of fall back on it. They clearly had the locations, and the isolated/end of the world imagery is incredibly unnerving, but we don’t get to see enough of it. Likewise, the limited cast seems like a missed opportunity, especially when we are “treated” to a 5 minute scene of a character going off after finding that another one had been taken, only to discover that it was some sort of hallucination. If you need to pad your film out, go shoot scenes of another would-be hero trying to make it to the bar, and failing. Scares are always better than groans – no one likes to find out they’ve been watching something that was just a dream.
They also could/should have done away with the awkward flashbacks for two of the characters. Every now and then, the script pulls a Lost and has a character think back on something that happened a couple days ago (the bulk of the movie takes place 3 days after everyone disappears); suspense-free scenes that often don’t really tell us anything about the characters OR the situation. The kid’s worked, because it was about happier times and came at a moment where we could use that bit of levity and hope, but Thandie Newton and Hayden Christensen’s were incredibly jarring, just showing another incident from the “what is going ON?” phase of their predicament when we already got that sort of thing a half hour or so prior when they were first introduced. The scenes themselves are fine, but their placement just didn’t work for me; it’s hard to be scared about shadows creeping up on Hayden 3 days ago when we know he makes his way to safety.
One thing that definitely worked was the “still” shadows. Most of them sort of creep around and engulf the walls and floors as they close in on our characters, and it’s a cool effect the first couple times but it gets a bit tedious as the film wears on. However, there are human shadows that just stand there, and those creeped me out from start to finish. There’s something very terrifying about a human shadow that has no source, and director Brad Anderson managed to continually find ways to make it scary, unlike the mostly shapeless “swarm” shadows.
Also, while I wish there were maybe 2-3 more characters, at least the actors playing the four we DO have provide solid work. John Leguizamo is as entertaining as always (though having him shout math statistics at one point wasn’t a good idea – you don’t want to give anyone unwanted flashbacks to The Happening), and Christensen continues to show that his awful Star Wars performances weren’t what we should be using to judge his abilities as an actor. His character is a bit of a prick, but ol’ Anakin makes him sympathetic all the same – something a bad actor wouldn’t have been able to pull off. I also enjoyed Jacob Latimore in his first film performance, as the young kid who believes his mother is coming back for him. Without spoiling much, the movie does show us how much damage a typically annoying child actor can do, so it’s much appreciated that they found a young actor who could play the role without annoying the audience, but also fit in with his co-stars. And Larry Fessenden pops up for about 30 seconds as a would-be survivor, essentially playing the exact same role he played in Mulberry Street.
I also felt the movie did a fine job of coming up with the different things that could happen when the humans simply disappear in an instant. The crashed cars and such are standard issue signs, but others, such as a patient whose doctor disappeared mid-surgery, are unique (to me) and quite chilling. And it’s another traditional idea, but a plane randomly dropping from the sky is always a great “oh shit” moment (another downside of keeping it in the bar – the idea that it’s not just the darkness they need to fear is sort of obliterated by keeping them inside). The piles of clothes also never failed to provide uncomfortable “sight gags”.
Now (spoilers ahead, sort of), one thing that I actually liked that I know bothered others was the lack of an explanation for what had happened. Basically they allude to it being the 2nd time it had happened (Roanoke/Croatoan are mentioned), but no specific cause is given. That’s fine with me, but if you are the type that wants everything explained, I’d steer clear of the film. If you ask me, any explanation would sound silly or would contrast with what I myself thought it was, so by leaving it up to me to decide, I can draw my own conclusions and be happy with it. That said, the big moment of “Croatoan” was a bit botched, as the word appeared in a spot that we hadn’t seen before. For all we know it was already there – it’s a cool word and some dude might have spray painted it there a year ago. There should have been a shot of the blank wall at the beginning of the film, or something along those lines to make it “pop” even more.
While I’m all for seeing original R rated films in theaters (though the rating is mainly for language – there’s no actual violence in the film, they just disappear), Magnolia has already put the film on certain on-demand services and will likely put it on more when the film gets its theatrical release later this month. And I would probably suggest watching it that way – it’s a very confined film and I think it will play better at home, when you have the option of putting the light on if you get scared, or a passing car’s headlights makes the shadow of a coat rack or something “creep” up on you for added effect. But either way, it’s worth a look, and the first half hour or so is top notch post-apocalyptic fare. I just wish there was a little more variety to the proceedings.
What say you?