I was watching The Killing this weekend, and in the opening frames appeared the words “Directed by Brad Anderson.” Man, if there was a name that ever-so-briefly excited genre fans for a few moments in the earl-to-mid-00’s, it was Anderson. Director of Session 9, The Machinist, and the Hitchcock-aspiring Transsiberrian, Anderson once seemed like he was going to be the hot new genre property. Even his TV work has been interesting, as he’s picked up jobs on The Wire, Fringe, and Boardwalk Empire, among others. With a fan base and a proven eye for talent, why isn’t Anderson up to more these days?
Then I remembered I had actually watched his new film, Vanishing on 7th Street, barely more than a month ago. That should give you some cue as to its quality.
Vanishing on 7th Street tells a story that vaguely falls into the post-apocalyptic mode. Without reason or alarm, anyone who is submerged into total darkness disappears, their possessions left behind and their bodies sucked up by the darkness. Not surprisingly, this wipes out most of humanity in the course of a night. What this creeping darkness is, no one can say. It tends to come with shadowy, outstretched fingers and a creepy, crackling laughter, though, so we can assume it’s bad. I’m actually a fan of ambiguous of terrors, but as I’ll get into, the horrors and mysteries (and unfortunately, characters) of the film are so vague as to barely register at all.
Vanishing starts off with a great idea for a scare – an audience sits in your average movie theater, watching a film, when the lights suddenly flicker out. When they kick back on, only the projectionist (John Leguizamo) is left, saved by his reading light. As he walks through the suddenly deserted theater and tries to avoid the darkness and comprehend what’s going on, our anxiety kicks in. Unfortunately, the film never reaches that level again.
What we get instead is the story of Luke (Hayden Christiansen, especially bland, even for Hayden Christiansen), who wakes up in a world where everyone is gone, including his beloved girlfriend. As he searches the streets, he realizes the main idea – no light = caput. From there, though, he seems to only meander through the world, looking for light to stay alive and bumping into other random survivors in the process. The bulk of the movie consists of Luke running into James, a young kid trying to find his family, Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a mother looking for her lost baby, and Leguizamo’s character, Paul, also just trying to stay alive. Meeting up in an abandoned bar, they try to figure out what’s happened, try to figure out what to do, and try to figure out if they can trust each other. But mainly, they… stand there.
If the movie’s inertness seemed to be making a bigger statement about humanity’s tendency to drift life without rhyme or reason, the lack of plot would be more forgivable. But there’s little to point us to that reading of the film. There’s a few vague allusions to religion from Paul and James’ characters, but they’re of little consequence in the end (despite the characters being named Luke, Paul, and James). Instead, most everything seems like a recycling of multiple apocalypse film clichés. There is something more interesting to be said about “the darkness” being a metaphor for the lights really going out (i.e. what happens if/when the world does lose all power and electricity.) But again, you’ve seen those ideas tackled with more specificity in The Trigger Effect or more ambitiously in The Road. Vanishing just doesn’t seem to have much to add to the conversation. The generic, blank performances by everyone involved don’t help.
But if the performances are wooden, the imagery is bland, and the narrative is stale, why would I – or anyone else – give it more than five minutes of my time? That falls squarely on Brad Anderson. At a time, the man seem prepped to be a mini-horror auteur: his breakthrough film, Session 9, his much lauded follow-up, The Machinist, and his Masters of Horror episode, “Sounds Like,” all were obsessed with horror and the industrial workplace. Anderson was perfect at getting into grim and gritty realities of shitty jobs, and how the idea of showing up for work in a dark, deafening machine shop could be just as bad as being chased down by a killer. And wreak just a much hell on the psyche. Even when Anderson got away from these notions with Transsiberian (starring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kinglsey), he still made a thriller interested in the bureaucracy of international travel and the dangers idiotic or misogynistic men pose to women. At times, it seems like Transsiberian is even trying to speak to the best of Hitchcock’s works. Admittedly, I think it’s a bit boring; but dammit, at least it’s running on some ideas.
Vanishing on 7th Street is the exact opposite of this; obvious horror thrills presented in thoughtless ways. You can’t throw in a few religiously themed names and some Bible-speak and assume your film is working with bigger ideas. It might not hurt Anderson to take a break and think about his choices some more; in the last year, he’s shot episodes of Alcatraz, Person of Interest and The Killing, all genre-skewing products that suffer from the same lack of direction as Anderson himself. He’s shooting a TV movie now (Midnight Sun, a procedural with Julia Stiles), and prepping his next feature (The Hive, a serial killer film with Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin.) The man gets work. But it seems he might need a moment or two to re-find that original spark we saw in Session 9 and The Machinist. Because while I’m all for more horror films and more work for horror directors, no one needs another Vanishing on 7th Street.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).