I am a Brad Anderson fan. Over the last ten years, he made very few movies, but they all had a powerful and lasting effect on me. SESSION 9 is a horror movie that plays in the same league than THE SHINING, THE MACHINIST is a twisted allegory with a touch of Dostoevsky angst and the one of the best performances of Christian Bale and TRANSSIBERIAN was one bleak mystery where Emily Mortimer stole the show. The guy has a knack for thick, suffocating atmospheres. He's also one of the most original and fearless american directors. I was very curious when the first critics of VANISHING ON 7TH STREET came out, because they weren't very good. A horror mystery, featuring Thandie Newton, how bad can it get, really? After a long period of hesitation, I decided to give VANISHING ON 7TH STREET a try, out of love for Anderson's body of work. Was I disappointed? Somewhat, but not much. It's still a very interesting movie, it's just that I question some of Anderson's narrative choices. Did I mention he directed a few episodes of THE WIRE? Yeah, I really love the guy.
The light in Detroit is dying. Literally. There's a city-wide power outage and people that didn't happen to stand in the light have simply vanished from the face of the earth, leaving their only their clothes behind. Or the vehicle they were driving at the moment of the outage (the city is full of different crashed vehicles, it can get pretty cool). Paul (Leguizamo), Luke (Christensen), Rosemary (Newton) and James (Latimore) all find their way to Sonny's Bar (where James' mom used to work) and try to figure out what the hell is going on. Is this the apocalypse? Divine retribution? Paul, who happens to be some sort of autodidact scientist (or a science student that happens to work in a cinema, Anderson rarely bothers with this kind of detail) puts forwards an hypothesis. There is
about a colony on Roanoke Island who completely vanished when the English supply boat came in. Only one word was carved on a tree, in the middle of the village - "Croatan". The fate of the colonists is still a big mystery today and Paul thinks the same thing might be happening to them. "The reel is winding down" as he says in his crafty projectionist lingo.
Part of the pleasure in Brad Anderson movies is to work to decipher what the hell is going on. I have fought my crippling fear of SESSION 9 and watched the movie about twelve times to realize that what I thought the first time I watched the movie isn't what happened at all (what I will gladly discuss with you by email. I'm not spoiling the movie. It's too good). There is an explanation to VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, but it still leaves shadow zones. A commenter on a horror forum came with the best analysis. He said that the movie has to be seen as a metaphor for death. You have to read the devouring shadows and the different locales of the movie. It's going to happen, it's just a question of time. You can find refuge in alcohol (bar), medecine (hospital), religion (church) or love (I'm not spoiling this one, it's pretty cool), but it's going to happen. The light will die and so will you. I know, it's a pretty cool metaphor. BUT....it leaves some frustrating points that don't make any sense.
(Very minor spoiler. Really, you might enjoy the movie more if you read this)
First, that whole "Croatan" hypothesis is accurate, but that's about how far you're going to get. Nobody knows what "Croatan" means and there's no real explanation given. I looked it up online afterwards and that road is really a dead end. Very disappointing. Some fans have made connections with the Bible and the fact that 7th Street was probably the reason why they were still alive (seven is a holy number), but that's rather obvious. There is still another problematic scene, one where Paul seems to branch off into his own reality and hell...it's a dead end too. Maybe if you've read Sartre you understand, but it's stretching it too far for a movie.
There's a very funny wink to ROSEMARY'S BABY, made by Brad Anderson. That could actually tie things up together, but I guess you'd have to see it. VANISHING ON 7TH STREET is a really moody movie and Brad Anderson's use of the shadows made for genuinely terrifying scenes. I'll agree with the critics that say it's a bit of a misfire in Anderson's legacy, but on an aesthetic level alone, it's an agreeable viewing. Really, it's still a couple of lengths ahead of your Hollywood peek-a-boo movie that scares you by hiding monsters in the drawer and by playing with the volume of the cameras. While I'm sad it doesn't live up to the cerebral standards Anderson set for himself, this is still above average for horror. It's probably a better idea to watch it if you have no idea of his body of work, so it can get only better from there. Hopefully, he'll get back on the right track with ALL LOST SOULS in 2012. Meanwhile, watch VANISHING ON 7TH STREET but don't expect to make too much sense out of it.
Unless you got something I didn't? Then, I'd be happy to hear your theory in the comments.