' Vanishing on 7th Street'


It's a wonder this film, from director Brad Anderson, isn't based on one of Stephen King's legion of stories. In the best way possible, 'Vanishing on 7th Street' feels like it comes from the curiously twisted mind of that prolific author, creating, as King does, a wonderfully apocalyptic vision of the future set against a backdrop of dark fantasy and the questions of faith.

Which is a fairly weighty way of saying it serves up a post-apocalyptic horror on a grand and highly entertaining scale. Hayden Christensen -- whose performance, per usual, is the only let down of this otherwise well-constructed piece -- plays a TV news reporter who wakes up after a long night to find he's alone in a barren city. It's not long before he works out that darkness itself is claiming victims, and that the light, both natural and otherwise, is quickly being stolen.

Along the way, he holes up with other survivors -- Thandie Newton, John Leguizamo and 13-year-old Jacob Latimore -- in a bar kept alight thanks to an ailing backup generator. But it won't keep them safe for long, and they know they must venture out of the city to find safety.

The central conceit starts to wane a little, but as the notion of a malevolent presence in the dark intensifies, Anderson and writer Anthony Jaswinski inject elements of faith and existence to keep the tension high. The film becomes a series of close calls, and its finale diminishes the sense of inevitable dread that makes its journey so engaging. As a result, it doesn't quite come together.

Outside of Hollywood -- and while this isn't backed by a major studio, it's still unquestionably a product of that system -- there might have been more room for the risks necessary to fully satisfy. But as post-apocalyptic actioners go, there's enough here to entertain, and there's enough of an out-of-the-box concept to admire.



'Agnosia'

With a story set at the turn of the century, about a curious and rare medical condition and the theft of company secrets, 'Agnosia' feels like 'The Prestige,' 'Memento' and 'Inception' all rolled into one. But it doesn't rely on an untrustworthy narrative, nor is it all smoke and mirrors. 'Agnosia's' plotting never leaves the audience behind, nor does it ask us to trust its fabricated reality. It's simply too good for that.

From director Eugenio Mira -- whose first film was the little-seen Corey Feldman versus Cthulhu story, 'The Birthday' -- 'Agnosia' is the sort of mind-bending sci-fi fantasy that doesn't come along too often. Joana is the character inflicted with the titular disorder, which prevents her from being able to differentiate faces she sees every day. Her father is the brilliant optics expert in charge of an ailing telescope company, whose legacy is a specially designed lens he's too terrified to put into production.

His main competitor is ready to resort to the most heinous of subterfuges to steal the secret of the lens. When her father dies by criminal hands, Joana takes to her bed on the advice of her doctor where a man visits her whom she believes to be her fiancé. He must gain her implicit trust before he can tap her for the secret his shady employers are desperate to learn.

We're always aware of the truth Joana simply can't understand -- that this man is not her fiancé at all -- but Mira smartly casts Eduardo Noriega and Félix Gómez as her fiancé and his doppelganger respectively, and makes them look so similar that even we're taken in by Gómez's rogue charms. Joana is forced to question her reality every day -- even staff at her household must wear different colored ribbons to be told apart -- and her world is filled with characters whose motivations she can only take at face value, to her downfall.

Performances across the board are exceptional, particularly from Joana's wizened physician played by Jack Taylor, and Mira creates a period setting so viscerally beautiful and curiously fantastical that the film feels like the work of a true visionary. It culminates in a beautifully operatic finale that takes your breath away and ensures the film lingers long after the credits roll.



'Insidious'

James "Saw" Wan, whose contributions to the genre since the release of that 2004 franchise-birther haven't been quite so successful, returns to his indie roots for this low-budget supernatural thriller with Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson.

They're young parents rocked by tragedy when one morning their little boy can't wake up. The doctors are stumped as to what's causing the coma, but mom is convinced it's the strange goings on she's been witnessing in the house.

What follows is a rip-roaring ghost story that strikes somewhere between Sam Raimi and 'The Exorcist.' As Byrne and Wilson are repeatedly haunted by demonic spirits, we learn that their son has a unique talent for out-of-body astral projection, and that he's being prevented from returning by the demons now haunting the family home.

But while Raimi balances humor with horror in a blend that's all his own and manages not to compromise either, Wan struggles to pull it off. Moments of comedy jar with the serious tone of the horror, and as the movie flits between the two tones, it's tough to know whether to be amused or scared.

Still, it dares to be different, and that's enough to forgive it some of its tonal indiscretions. Scares come thick, fast and inventively, and when the film immerses itself in its invented mythology by the third act, you're fully along for the ride.