Darkness is the monster in director Brad Anderson’s “Vanishing on 7th Street,” a high-concept/low-budget horror film whose inventively slithering CG shadows can’t compensate for a curious lack of shivers. Sounds scary, perhaps: Nearly all of Detroit, save for some light-hoarding citizens in a corner bar, falls prey to mysterious, wraithlike forces (aliens or dead souls?) that suck people’s bodies right out of their clothes. But the threat of suddenly disappearing — evidently without pain — is a purely existential one the pic doesn’t begin to probe, paling beside the countless other survivalist thrillers it evokes. Commercial prospects appear, uh, dim.
Anderson, a talented filmmaker who has spent the past dozen years shifting between smartly eccentric romantic comedies (“Happy Accidents”) and bare-bones psychological chillers (“The Machinist”), has taken a rare misstep here. One senses throughout the film his reluctance to embrace the “gotcha!” conventions that might’ve helped plant his rather abstract exercise in cinematic shadow play more firmly under the viewer’s skin.
The pic’s first image of a flickering film projector beam hints at an ode to the saving grace of movies that, in more ways than one, sadly never comes. Nevertheless, it’s in a multiplex booth that Anderson introduces projectionist Paul (John Leguizamo), whose equipment suddenly loses power amid the faint sounds of screams from the audience below. Bodies have indeed been snatched in the course of a citywide power outage, and the pic’s insinuating method of revelation stretches all the way back to Val Lewton’s “Cat People” from 1942, as grasping, claw-shaped shadows are all we see.
Shooting on location in Detroit, Anderson and cinematographer Uta Briesewitz do pull off a tricky view of a city barren but for the cars and clothes that have involuntarily been left behind. Pitch-black even in morning hours, Detroit is somehow vacant except for Paul and a trio of strangers with whom he holes up in a bar powered by a basement generator.
There’s Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV-news field reporter with hopes of making it to Chicago, where his estranged wife lives; Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a physical therapist looking in vain for her 9-month-old son; and James, a shotgun-toting 12-year-old whose missing mom owns the bar.
As desperate conversation ensues, much of it inauthentic to the situation, “Vanishing” works a “Twilight Zone”-ish scenario that might well have played better in a half-hour format. Mumbling through ridiculously gritted teeth, Leguizamo’s hammy Paul has one great line that only a projectionist would utter: “We’re the last spin on the reel before it’s done for good.” Otherwise, dialogue in the script by Anthony Jaswinski is strictly made-for-cable.
As the tavern’s generator increasingly sputters, allowing far too many instances of darkness nearly winning out (but not!), the characters offer opposing philosophical takes on the unknowable phenom; the film eventually seems to settle rather conveniently on Christian religion as a cure.
Often emoting through quivers and tears, Newton fares best by far in a cast that remains largely subordinate to the script’s endless contrivances. Tech-wise, the largely gray-black palette is essential to the story while revealing the severe limitations of low-light HD shooting on a budget. In this sense, though humanity may yet see the light of day, Anderson’s army of shadows wins the war.