Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2011

Darkness falls

'Vanishing on 7th Street' makes a palpable foe out of a primal fear

Vanishing on 7th Street
Magnet Releasing
Director: Brad Anderson
Screenplay: Anthony Jaswinski
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and Jacob Latimore
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Sometimes all it takes is one great character, one great performance. The kind of character whose very presence is imprinted on the entire film. The kind of performance without which everything else would fall apart.

The darkness in Vanishing on 7th Street is one such character. And make no mistake, it is a character.

To take something intangible and transform it into a living, breathing character is a unique accomplishment. It can be a place (the city of New Orleans in HBO's Treme) or even a song ("California Dreamin'" in Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express); in this case it's merely a shadow cast across (presumably) the globe, the villain and perpetrator of a surreal apocalypse.

If there were a gender-neutral Oscar category for supporting performance, this would make a worthy candidate. The "performers," per se, would be the lighting and special effects, which director Brad Anderson uses to create a truly menacing figure - its body contorting and winding itself around every source of light, its arms predatorily stretching for its next victim, its shadow lurking behind like a stalker.

We see so many lackluster antagonists (human or otherwise) who might as well be lifeless and faceless, yet here we have a villain that is both of those - is, in a sense, invisible - and it feels palpable. Physical, even. As if, for once, there's actually something (someone?) to be afraid of, to fight against.

Using the formula of the lawless postapocalyptic thriller, Vanishing taps into that most elemental of human fears - the fear of the dark. Anderson and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski never feel compelled to delve beyond that. The darkness remains a singular and ambiguous force whose silent destruction resists any and all explanation.

The apocalypse is as abrupt as it is unexplained. The power goes out in a movie theatre and within moments everyone has disappeared, their clothes lying harmlessly in a heap on the ground. (Whether this means there are legions of naked people running around in some sort of metaphysical netherworld is a story for another time. Perhaps the sequel.)

The streets and sidewalks are virtually empty the next morning, stopped cars strewn about, electricity all but dead, in a Twilight Zone-esque image of eerie, deathly calm. The film never gets beyond the borders of its Detroit setting, but the implication - that this is worldwide - is clear. Those who survived the initial purge did so quite by accident - simply by being in the presence of light of some kind (a laptop screen, a flashlight, etc.), a light that granted them at least a temporary respite from what seems like an inevitable fate.

As postapocalyptic tales so often do, Vanishing sets up shop in a centralized location with a small group of survivors - in this case Luke (Hayden Christensen), a local news anchor whose barrage of dangling lights hanging from his raincoat protects him even at the darkest of night; Paul (John Leguizamo), a movie projectionist; Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a nurse desperate to find her missing child; and James (Jacob Latimore), a 12-year-old boy who has taken refuge in an old-fashioned tavern whose generator has kept the lights on, at least for the time being.

With the amount of sunlight growing shorter by the day, sources of light get more and more scarce and the odds of everyone (or anyone) surviving dwindles. While the screenplay has its problems, it deserves credit for not getting itself stuck in place. The characters, like the film, are resourceful, continually finding ways to buy as much time as they can, even if it's only another few hours.

It's refreshing to see a horror film built on some of the most basic fundamentals of horror - i.e. the emphasis on mood over spectacle, suggestion over action. And what is more fundamental to horror's roots than shadow itself? The most famous shot of the greatest horror film of all-time, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, is not of the vampire himself, but of his silhouette cast against a staircase wall.

Vanishing on 7th Street very well could have been a black-and-white film if it had wanted to be, and the premise would have worked as well (if not better) in the silent era as it does today.

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