Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chills, scares & kindness: Brad Anderson's VANISHING ON 7th STREET hits theaters

What a shame that Night Catches Us has already (and so recently!) been used as the title of a movie, one for which its meaning proved abstruse, at best. It would have made the perfect fit for Brad Anderson's new film VANISHING ON 7th STREET, a title that, while place-specific, is little more than prosaic. The actual film, however, is anything but. A truly creepy, frightening, bizarre and oddly moving film about perhaps the ultimate "fear of the dark," this exceedingly swift and smart genre movie delivers the goods on every front,  from concept to execution -- including screenplay (by Anthony Jaswinski), dialog, direction and performances -- with style to spare. And on the kind of low budget that I suspect would send certain other directors into apoplectic fits.

From the time of his breakout indie Next Stop Wonderland through Happy Accidents, Session 9, The Machinist, Transsiberian and now this new one (with the occasional cable TV gig between times), Anderson has been a talented and terrifically diverse filmmaker whom you can count on to provide smart entertainments that often offer something more. Long after seeing one of his films, an idea, a moment, performance, line of dialog or visual memory will come back to haunt you, but pleasantly. The filmmaker has now tackled the rom-com, fantasy, thriller, horror, drama, and sci-fi genres with equal aplomb. If he hasn't come out with the best film in any of these, he always manages a good one. And with Vanishing, he might actually have a "best" on his hands.
This unusually chilling movie starts with an almost immediate bang: a disappearance. From there we move extraordinarily quickly into a situation fraught with immediacy and terror. What has happened to others may happen to the folk we're suddenly stuck with and whom we become rather fond of fast. These include Hayden Christensen (above), Thandie Newton (below, right) and Jacob Latimore (below, left) and John Leguizamo (one photo down).

There is also a little girl (Taylor Groothuis, at bottom) who appears to be camping out in a nearby church. How these five connect, interact, help and hinder each other makes the short film (well under 90 minutes, as I recall) work to tremendous effect. If you buy the initial premise, which I will not give away, it is more than easy to go along with just about everything else, and soon you'll be biting your nails to the quick.

So primal is the fear generated by the movie's premise, so skillfully have Anderson and Jaswinski mined it for shock, surprise and detail, and so immediate and full of feeling are the performances of the five principals that I can't imagine being more strongly caught up in a fantasy/sci-fi/horror situation than I was with this one.

Why is this "thing" happening? Is humanity to blame in some -- or many -- ways? Are our survivors guilty because of "survivor guilt," or is something deeper and more individual going on? Much is hinted at but concrete answers never appear, which is just as well. The victims don't have time to ask such questions, and at the speed and pacing on which Anderson insists, we barely do, either. The ending, by the way, is simple, stun-ning and so right. I can't wait for the sequel.

Vanishing on 7th Street opens this Friday, February 18, in New York City at the Village East Cinema. Click here to learn other playdates, cities and theaters around the country.

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