Sunday, 11 March 2012

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)

Brad Anderson is, for me, one of the best – if not the best – director working in psychological horror today. The Machinist (2004) is already an acknowledged classic.  Session 9 (2001) continues to disturb, intrigue and mystify. Sounds Like (2006) was, along with John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005), the best of the Masters of Horror series. Anderson combines the best of Hitchcock and Polanski in his ability to use pure cinema to unsettle and unnerve. He is, in fact, so good at psychological horror that the social commentary in his films often passes unnoticed by critics. It is there. In Session 9 there is the abandoned asylum, a relic from a time when people would be incarcerated against their will simply because they were considered too burdensome to remain in broader society. Dozens of huge asylums like the one in Session 9 stand abandoned in the United States and Britain, a shameful reminder of our less-than –tolerant-past when it came to treating mental illness. In Session 9, this sense of horror and shame – akin to that one senses in concentration camps – pervades the film.

In Vanishing on 7th Street, a group of characters band together in a Detroit bar to fight against an inexplicable enemy. When darkness comes, those who are not protected by a light source – such as a torch - simply vanish, leaving only their clothes behind. The film opens in a cinema. Projectionist John Leguizamo, is changing the reels when the lights suddenly go out. When he goes to investigate he finds the entire cinema suddenly empty, except for clothes and possessions left on the seats and in the aisles. Where has everyone vanished to? It is a surreal premise - one that begs a metaphorical or even philosophical meaning. The setting of Detroit, in particular, has allegorical resonance. In real life as well as film the once thriving ‘motorcity’ is now a ghost town; industry has ended there. Houses stand empty. People have left. Like in Vanishing on 7th Street only shadows remain. And the creeping darkness threatens to encroach into other cities, with similar results.

Indeed in Anderson’s films, the inexplicable only happens to the workers: the blue collar stiff in The Machinist, the office drone in Sounds Like, the tradesmen builders in Session 9. In these films, the workplace itself becomes a site of horror. The personal insanity of the characters is possibly caused by their working environment, certainly is made worse by it. The mundane yet highly stressful job of the machinist, Christian Bale, seems, at first to be the thing that is tipping him over the edge. In Session 9, the impossibly short timescale of the building contract pressures the men unduly, making them increasingly tired and disorientated –and susceptible to the influence of the asylum and the malignant forces it holds within its walls. In Vanishing on 7th Street all the characters are separated from loved ones because of the pressures of work. Thandi Newton is a junior doctor forced to leave her baby at home while she does her shift. Hayden Christensen is a news reporter whose job takes him away from home, only to find his girlfriend vanished once he returns. For these characters, their lives are vanished and now their very existence is at stake. In fact their final line of defence against vanishing is to protest their existence, as John Leguizamo attempts to. As the workers in real life Detroit tried to.

Vanishing on 7th Street borrows heavily from Night of the Living Dead in this sense. A small group of characters are besieged by an inexplicable, even absurd, apocalypse (that are filmic allegories of real world events). Both films share the absurdist tragedy of the playwright Eugene Ionesco, whose The Chairs featured only two characters in a post-apocalyptic world proliferated by threatening chairs. Ionesco’s play spoke to the absurdity of the nuclear age in 1952, Romero’s film to the absurdity of intergenerational conflict in the 1960s, and Anderson’s films seem to speak increasingly to the absurdity of economic collapse in present day America.

Anderson has an uncanny ability to take the familiar environments of American towns and cities and make them impersonal and strange. In Vanishing on 7th Street the abandoned streets of Detroit take on an unreal sheen. In The Machinist,  West Coast American details – cars, phone kiosks – were added to Barcelona Streets (where the film was shot) to disorientate the viewer. The film is set in America and it looks like America - and yet it doesn’t quite.

This sense of jet-lagged disorientation is heightened by Anderson’s masterful use of sound. Anderson often drops out the atmosphere track, leaving only a single sound source in isolation. The effect is to create a dislocated state of mind like that of descending in a plane when your ears pop, leaving everything slightly surreal. In Sounds Like, Anderson made this sense of heightened sound the basis of the story.

Even in an indifferent Anderson film like Vanishing on 7th Street all of these characteristics are present. Despite the lacklustre script, Anderson’s gift for subtle psychological horror – and his peerless ability to render it on film – shines through. For that alone It is worth seeing.


Wes M said...

Fantastic stuff. This one is new to me Jon and it sounds like a film I'd like to see - I like these kind of quiet post-apocalyptic films. I caught, literally the last shot of Session 9 about a forthnight ago on TV, so I'm keeping my eyes peeled for the re-run... I like the idea of playing with the setting of the film - I thought Cronenberg did that very well with Naked Lunch, mixing ambient sounds of Moroccan and New York streetlife to the point of abstraction... Recently I caught one of BBC4's music documentaries on Motown, and the contemporary images of Detroit are frightening, the devastation caused by the demise of the motor industry has turned it into a phantom city - to borrow from Hunter Thompson: you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back...

Maynard Morrissey said...

I'm a huge Brad Anderson fan but Vanishing left me completely cold. A few eerie scenes, great settings and solid acting, but apart from that it almost bored me to death. Nearly no tension or suspense, and the ending was just laughable IMO

Interesting review though.

Jon T said...

Thanks, Wes. I was thinking of that Motown doc as I wrote- great documentary.

Session 9 is well worth a view. I kept wanting to look over my shoulder while I was watching it - it's a long time since a film did that to me. Truly chilling.

Love the Thompson quote - where is it from?

Jon T said...

Hey, Maynard. Yeah, I felt disengaged when I watched Vanishing, whereas his other films drew me right in. I blame the script being not up to his usual standard. We didn't really know anything about the characters before things went wrong, and the flashbacks didn't tell us much about them either. Shame - Anderson's direction is still worth watching though.

Wes M said...

That quote was taken from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and is Thompson's requiem for the lost dream that was the Sixties...

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era —the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant... So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Jon T said...


"Man, I'll try anything but I'll never in hell touch a pineal gland!"

James Gracey said...

Fantastic review, Jon. I love Anderson's work and can't wait to see this. It was one of the films my flatmate and I considered the other night before settling on Red State (and we know how THAT turned out). Should've gone with this one.
I was especially interested in the comments you raised about Anderson's use of working class characters, and how places of work become the source of horror in his horror films. His settings are indeed highly atmospheric and unique; he even wrote Session 9 around the building it’s based in.
Session 9 STILL gives me the creeps; something few films, let alone films I've seen before, can do.
Loved this write up. So much so, I'm going to try and watch this tonight.
Hope you're well!

Jon T said...

Thanks, James. Hope Vanishing on 7th Street doesn't disappoint you. It's not a patch on Session 9, but the direction is pure Anderson.Great use of sound & setting to create unease.

James Gracey said...

So I finally watched this! I wasn't disappointed - though I agree with your comments about feeling a little disengaged because of the limp characters. Not a patch on Session 9, but some wonderfully creepy imagery kept me fairly close to the edge of my seat throughout.