Brad Anderson may be a poor-man's John Carpenter, but given that there are no rich-man's John Carpenters around these days, that's hardly an insult. Anderson may not be a revered auteur, but his fondness for, and reasonable deftness with, the widescreen frame—generally employed for patient horror-ish material—sets him apart from many of his genre-loving peers. And while Vanishing on 7th Street isn't likely to thrust him into the mainstream spotlight, it's another solid, serviceable spooky saga with enough intriguing undercurrents to compensate for both a dearth of spine-tingling tension and uneven lead performances.
Working from a Twilight Zone-style premise, Anderson's film (written by Anthony Jaswinski) concerns a sudden power outage that causes most of Detroit's inhabitants to instantaneously disappear, their clothes falling in a heap to the floor. Not everyone, however, is gone, and soon TV reporter Luke (Hayden Christensen), doctor Rosemary (Thandie Newton), and film projectionist Paul (John Leguizamo) find themselves at a local bar where the power remains on thanks to a generator that's manned by young James (Jacob Latimore). There, they hole up, using light as a weapon against the encroaching darkness, which is alive with shadowy figures and eerie sounds that seem intent on abducting the harried survivors.
Anderson's CG effects of murky, spindly shapes pursuing his protagonists prove a mixed bag, but he exploits the interplay between light and dark for a mood of constant unease, if not outright terror. The film's conceit—of an inexplicable, non-material, undead force haunting the living, who in turn combat their enemies via flashlight—merges Carpenter's fantastic The Fog with Remedy Games's excellent Xbox 360 thriller Alan Wake, though Anderson's film never feels egregiously derivative so much as familiar with genre hallmarks. Those include the well-worn scenario of strangers banding together inside a saloon, Paul's role as the character with convenient knowledge of similar supernatural phenomenon (here, it's the mysterious disappearance of a 1590s Roanoke colony), and the key role played by children, with Latimore's James slowly but surely taking center stage. That last facet is a welcome relief from the early-going, which, despite trifurcating its attention between the concurrent stories of Luke, Rosemary, and Paul (all of whom are first seen grappling with the blackout, and later flashing back to key events), unwisely focuses on Luke, whose mixture of no-nonsense pragmatism and blunt callousness is made considerably more irritating by Christensen's wholesale lack of subtlety.
If Anderson never conjures a truly iconic image, he still delivers a raft of mildly striking ones, none better than a late sequence involving Paul warily navigating a well-lit subterranean tunnel. While religious elements abound, from Luke's name and his arguments with true-believer Rosemary about God's role in this situation, to an anticlimactic finale set at a church's candlelit altar, there's little substance to these ideas, which play more like superficial trappings than key components of a theological inquiry. That's not to say, however, that Vanishing on 7th Street is merely an efficient, modestly effective mood piece, since Anderson does cannily position his open-ended story—which refuses to devolve into literal-minded explanations for its paranormal premise—as a metaphor for the cinema itself. Opening with the sight of a flickering film projector amidst surrounding black, and concerned throughout with characters who oppose the lethal darkness by asserting, "I exist," Anderson's sturdy B movie recasts itself as a meta portrait of self-actualizing fictional characters staving off the figurative death that occurs when the projector's light goes out, a shrewd undercurrent that also, eventually, posits the cinema's glow as a source not just of survival and escape but, fundamentally, of life itself.