Think of “Vanishing on 7th Street,” starring Hayden Christensen, John Leguizamo and Thandie Newton, as the apocalypse sneaking in on the down-low.
No fiery inferno or towering tsunami or other mega-disaster to bring the walls crashing down. For this particular end-of-days tale, director Brad Anderson turns down the lights, puts some blues on the juke and proceeds to terrorize and philosophize with the last few remaining living souls on Earth.
Writer Anthony Jaswinski’s understated script starts with a belief that to frighten, you don’t need to actually show the things that go bump in the night. A few more “Boos!” wouldn’t have hurt. He definitely favors biblical allegories of the type you would expect, starting with the “7" in the title and ending with a religious experience at church.
In between, there is a lot of overcoming to do for our small band of survivors. Set in a down-market corner of Detroit, “Vanishing on 7th Street” opens in an old movie house where Leguizamo’s Paul runs the projector and flirts with the cute girl working concessions. The filmmakers take time here to have some allegorical fun of the theatrical sort, but don’t let the popcorn fool you.
Soon enough, the lights go out and Paul’s panic rises as he finds all that’s left of anyone is…. now I would normally consider a drum roll here, but the trailers have already let the cat out of the bag, or, more precisely, the people out of their clothes. Well, shoes and hats and purses too. It’s as if the recently departed have all gone poof, but in a polite way. No messy cleanup required.
We’ll get back to our story in a minute, but not before a moment of appreciation for just how stylish and artfully designed Anderson, director of photography Uta Briesewitz and production designer Stephen Beatrice have made their low-budget effort. Detroit may be on the skids, but the filmmakers have used the decay to create a sepia-drenched vintage look that is ideal for letting the menace steal in.
Now, on to the action, which turns out to be very reflective of Anderson’s intellectual brand of creepy that has made his work — particularly “The Machinist,” with Christian Bale’s factory worker literally shrinking from his guilt — so interesting to watch.
The still-living are soon being led by Christensen’s Luke, playing the young hunk in charge. That might sound like typecasting, given his “Star Wars” gig, but the actor goes a different kind of Darth, make that dark, in a very human, rather than sci-fi-enhanced, way. Newton’s Rosemary as a distraught mother whose baby’s gone missing, and Jacob Latimore, as 12-year-old James, round out the ensemble.
As the lights go out and the sun dies, the one place still breathing life is that bar with its jazz juke and its drinks and one very frightened boy in James, whose mom owns the establishment and promised to be right back. Well, we’ll see about that.
Like moths to a flame, everyone eventually gathers there, including a badly injured Paul, with Leguizamo groaning and grimacing and carrying on weighty discussions as he walks that fine line between camp and credible.
As the ancient gasoline-powered generator struggles, sparks flying, bad things start piling up like all those clothes, and desperate measures become necessary. That allows for some decent action scenes in big cars on midnight streets, which is good because you’re getting hungry for something more to happen by this point.
Anderson spends most of his energy creating a mood — making “Vanishing” more cerebral than white-knuckle, though a few more shrieks (mine) might have been nice.