Drenched in atmospheric dread, Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street is a slight yet haunting thriller that replaces easy answers with the pervasive sense of unknowable, evil forces at work. Propelled by an unexplained mystery – Detroit’s electrical grid fails and people start vaporizing in the darkness – the movie offers a crash course in economical filmmaking while espousing the fundamental truth that nothing scares quite like what we can’t see or understand.
The set-up is simple: Days after the cataclysmic event, four strangers – possibly the only survivors left in the Motor City – wind up in a strong, generator-powered bar on 7th Street. They are TV reporter Luke (Hayden Christensen), movie theater projector Paul (John Leguizamo), nurse Rosemary (Thandie Newton) and adolescent James (Jacob Latimore). With no answers, no clear next step and sinister animated shadow portrait figures crawling along the walls as the power dims, the quartet tries to find its way to some form of permanent light.
With his impressionistic visual style and distaste for viewer orientation, Anderson, who directed the comparably grim sci-fi drama The Machinist, generates ample tension. Detroit’s already morose, rundown cityscape takes on a surreal, haunting beauty when rendered in supernatural darkness, as if the much-maligned urban space could really be ground zero for the sudden end of the world. Utilizing chiaroscuro and eerie sound design, as Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay cleverly plays off possible parallels to the lost colony of Roanoke, the movie achieves a deeply unsettling effect.
Of course, the characters are essentially superfluous in what amounts to an engaging filmmaking exercise, their interactions centered almost exclusively on the shared sense that what seems to have been an act of God has left them in significant danger. It’s just as well.
The actors handle the terror part well, the frenzied, panicked search for some sliver of hope. The quieter, more introspective moments fall victim to some haphazard dialogue and weak psychoanalyzing, however, and Christensen again reveals his limitations when it comes to projecting the gravitas of a conflicted hero. The former Anakin Skywalker still struggles to project something other than the petulant adolescent rage that characterized his take on the iconic Star Wars character.
Yet he’s an appealing cipher, a perfect blank slate upon which the audience projects its own general unease. Aside from James, who is given a subplot and brief flashback sequence that tugs at the heart, the movie is more concerned with the grand unexplained phenomenon that happens to these characters than the characters themselves. Their back stories matter less than the next step on their uncertain collective journey away from the darkness.
Of course, Vanishing on 7th Street doesn’t need Dostoyveskian internalized character drama anyway. Made on a miniscule budget, incorporating real locations and only a dollop of CGI, it first is an impressive filmmaking feat. With a mystery mysterious enough to be worth exploring, the tensions of an impossible situation at its fore and Anderson’s sharp eye for capturing the ethereal beauty of this unlit world, the film offers the sort of organically fun, creepy experience that’s largely missing from the big screen these days.
The Upside: It’s an entertaining, unsettling low-budget horror movie that relies on storytelling and cinematic innovation.
The Downside: The humans, when they speak.
On the Side: The movie was actually shot on location in Detroit. It’s available on video-on-demand as well.