Brad Anderson is aiming for something here, and I have absolutely no idea what it is. His film, Vanishing on 7th Street, is chilling but impenetrable, a stylish and moody horror film that’s heavily symbolic of nothing clear or attainable. It’s founded on one of the oldest and most basic dualities there is, namely the battle between light and dark; this is a good, reliable metaphor, but it only works if the story in some way resolves itself. Not only does this not happen, the ending is also constructed in such a way that it forces us to rethink what we thought had been going on. Leaving the theater, I felt certain I had seen a film that was incomplete, as if it had ended before the third act was allowed to begin. This is especially disappointing given the fact that it actually gets off to a good start.
We begin in a movie theater projection booth, where a man named Paul (John Leguizamo) reads about the unfortunate lost colony Roanoke. Without warning, the entire theater is plunged in darkness, and the laughter of the audience in the auditorium abruptly stops. Paul, equipped with a portable light on a headband, goes to investigate. Everyone is gone. All that’s left are piles of clothing and strewn personal objects. When he steps out of the theater and into the mall, he finds a security guard, who hears a noise coming from one of the shops; when he steps in, Paul’s headlight momentarily flickers, and in the dark, the guard vanishes into thin air. This is when we become aware of whispering, and an inky void that seems to have a life of its own.
The next morning, we discover the film takes place in Detroit. A young field reporter for the local news named Luke (Hayden Christensen) awakens and realizes his girlfriend has gone missing. So too has power to the building. He walks down over thirty flights of stairs and finds empty clothes in place of a security guard. He then picks up a paper, and quickly realizes it’s from the previous day. He steps outside; the city looks like a war zone, with crashed cars and various loose items sprawled all over the streets. This eerie scene turns shocking when a jumbo jet suddenly comes crashing down.
Flash forward three days. The city is engulfed in darkness. Luke, who wanders the streets looking for a working car and fresh batteries, happens upon a bar on 7th Street, where the power hinges on a barely working generator. Inside, he’s confronted and nearly shot to death by a twelve-and-a-half-year-old named James (Jacob Latimore), whose mother has gone missing. In due time, they’re joined by a physical therapist named Rosemary (Thandie Newton), sick with panic and grief over her missing nine-month-old son. Paul just happens to find his way to this bar, Luke having discovered him lying in the glow of a bus stop, bleeding, frightened, and weakened by a concussion. The thing is, the darkness has nothing to do with the time of day; the periods of sunlight have grown much shorter. And the shadow figures are closing in fast.
Part of the problem is that this event, whatever it is, operates under needlessly confusing rules. Survival depends in constant exposure to light, natural or artificial; if the forces of darkness are capable of disrupting power sources and killing electronic devices, how is it that batteries are still
useful for flashlights, if only for a little while? And why, when the blackout first takes hold, are certain rooms left powered? When Paul is found at the bus stop, it’s explained that it remained lit because it was solar powered. Fine, but I thought it was already established that the days were getting shorter. Even the plane crash is questionable, for it happens the morning after the initial blackout; it seems to me that it would have gone down hours earlier.
We’re led to believe that an explanation rests on the word “Croatoan,” which, if you know your history, was scribed into a wooden post on Roanoke and remains the only clue in the disappearance of the sixteenth-century colony. Perhaps there is something to this idea, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. We’re also made to ponder the mysterious symbolism of a young girl, the sudden appearance of a horse, and the potentially life-saving mantra, “I exist.” Watching this movie, I was reminded of Richard Kelly’s The Box, a notoriously perplexing spiritual fable. The strange thing is, that film worked, in part because it told a complete story, but mostly because Kelly had the conviction to go all out with his preposterous notions. Vanishing on 7th Street is oddly reticent, suggesting Anderson had something to say but was too embarrassed to actually say it. Embarrassed or unskilled; I honestly don’t know which.