Review: ‘Vanishing On 7th Street’

1. "Vanishing on 7th Street" is a zombie movie without zombies. As a theoretical construct, this might sound appealing; after all, zombies aren't exactly the most charismatic villains. But they are at least villains. When a character is being chased by a zombie, they are doing something, you can make some sort of spacial sense of the matter. When the scantily clad woman falls down, the zombie keeps coming. Will she get up in time? Or will the zombie eat her? We do not know why the zombie wants to eat her; we just know that he does. Having the zombie there gives us something to track; it gives us something to do. If there were no zombie, what would we do with ourselves? Why make a zombie movie with no zombies? And why is that a question I even have to ask?

2. Brad Anderson is a talented director who's a little too ambitious for his own good. "Vanishing on 7th Street" is about a mysterious darkness that makes people vanish into the ether. To stay alive, you must keep some sort of light on you at all times; in this universe, glow sticks have a use to adults who are not on drugs. This becomes more complicated because the days become shorter and shorter and sunlight becomes more sparse. The goal is simply survival. We never learn what's causing the darkness to eat people, why this is happening, whether there's a lesson for humanity. The darkness is just making people disappear. On its own, this is not a terrible premise; Rod Serling might have had some fun with it between ads for General Electric. But it sounds more fun than it is. Instead of zombies closing in on our heroes, it's just a bunch of shadows. Over, and over. The shadows come in, and then poof, away goes the human. That's it. At least zombies have teeth.

3. This film is essentially a full-length version of the shadow tricks Francis Ford Coppola did in "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Anderson does everything he can on his limited budget with lighting, with human shadows -- presumably The Shadows Of The Dead! -- serving as a sort of fake boogeyman emerging from corridors and alleyways. But he has to fall back on that trick a lot because there is no boogeyman: There is just that darkness. Look, as a woman is closed in from all corners by ... dusk! At least "The Happening" wanted you to be scared of trees. "Vanishing on 7th Street" wants you to be scared by shadow puppets.

4. The film has some name actors but isn't sure what to do with them. John Leguizamo has a few nice moments as the world's most intelligent and well-read movie projectionist. (It is a sad joke that the film opens with hundreds of people dying while watching an Adam Sandler movie.) But Thandie Newton, a lively, vivid actress gives a weak, passive, depressing performance; she plays the in-peril heroine like a Shrieking Violent rather than a Scream Queen. As for Hayden Christensen, well, the guy's always gonna be Lil' Anakin a lot more than he's gonna be Darth Vader. There's a reason his one effective performance was as the sniveling, dissembling Stephen Glass: This guy has the screen presence of someone who is trying to sneak out the back door. Making him a semi-muscled, laconic lead, saddled with a half-cooked lost-love story, gives us nothing to watch at the center of the picture. I found myself rooting for the dark.

5. The film is shot in Detroit for the same reason that "The Road" was shot in Pittsburgh: It's easy to find lots of places that are abandoned by all humanity. If the movie is striving for some sort of metaphor, forgive me for missing it. (Maybe RoboCop could help.) This is a minimalist horror movie that is just minimalist, with the same hackeneyed characters we see in every other horror movie, just without an actual guy in a hockey mask to come after them. It's "Alien" without an alien, "Predator" without a predator, "Friday the 13th" without a guy in a hockey mask. The film has a few eerie chills, but they're chills in anticipation of a payoff. There is no payoff. Bring me more zombies, please.

Grade: D+