Brad Anderson doesn’t exactly direct horror movies, but his thrillers, like The Machinist and Transsiberian, bring horrific or disquieting elements into everyday life. Showing skill and patience that recall Hitchcock, they’re horror movies for grown-ups. His new film Vanishing on 7th Street takes this idea a step further, introducing a fantastical element — an unnamed force consuming the world into darkness.
Most of the action is confined to a bar, where a few strangers are holed up, trying to stave off the shadows. But Vanishing isn’t quite as one-dimensional as that sounds. The point of view shifts to accommodate individual backstories, beginning with Paul (John Leguizamo), a nerdy projectionist at a movie theater. When the lights go out at work, he’s startled to see that everyone else has disappeared as if disintegrated, leaving their clothes in piles and hints of ghostly voices swirling around in the dark. Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a nurse, has survived a similar incident at her hospital. And we spend the following morning with Luke (Hayden Christensen), who wakes up to find his apartment building abandoned and the streets filled with more empty clothes.
So far, so creepy: shadows reach out from gloomy recesses, grasping at humans like invisible tentacles, and the streets, littered with abandoned clothing and cars, provide a starkly eerie sight. The conceptual simplicity of this seeming apocalypse lends the movie a scary bedtime story atmosphere, and Anderson makes good use of Detroit locations, finding the emotional, even metaphysical, nuances in urban decay.
But after a striking introduction, the movie proceeds to overplay its hand, leaning on those bendy-shadow effects. The rhythm of the disappearances barely varies; people try to outrun the darkness, and either they dodge it at the last minute, or it hits them and they disappear. After about 20 minutes, the shadow monsters have become as monotonous as any machete-wielding slasher.
Anderson’s better thrillers have a quiet intensity, which Vanishing occasionally summons, but screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski’s dialogue interrupts the mood with down-the-middle hokiness. Luke is introduced saying exactly what he thinks about his unnerving situation, and this turns out to be Jaswinski’s solution to the story’s minimalism: if no one else is around, just have characters deliver exposition by talking to themselves.
Maybe that’s the preferable option, though, because when people do come together at the bar, they turn histrionic. The movie seems to think that the fear will be more visceral when punctuated by as many loud outbursts as possible. It doesn’t help that Christensen and Newton are both prone to overacting even in better circumstances (Leguizamo is too, but that’s part of his crazy charm) and appear more than eager to scream it out here. The three stars, along with young James (Jacob Latimore), turn out to be tedious company for an apocalypse; rather than offering a cross-section of Detroit residents, the movie gives us a handful of leftovers. Luke has regrets over his broken marriage. Rosemary hopes, stupidly, that she might find her baby. Paul, not being white, gets injured early, under confusing circumstances, and spends the back half of the movie sweaty and delusional.
The oversized performances represent a jarring comedown for Anderson, who seems like the perfect director to observe regular people responding to mysterious, terrifying circumstances. The tight character-study focus that so benefited Christian Bale in The Machinist and Emily Mortimer in Transsiberian here feels softened and dumbed down, each portrait quickly reduced from minimal to downright perfunctory.
As Vanishing on 7th Street turns into something like an extended Twilight Zone episode, without the blatant moralizing, it becomes harder for us to keep focused. The fears introduced in the movie’s opening dissipate, and the shadows produce dread not over the characters’ possible fates, but over the 90-minute running time, which starts to feel endless.