Director Brad Anderson's arresting horror fable, Vanishing on 7th Street, opens with great promise.
The first 10 minutes have the markings of a classic thinking-person's thriller: An apocalyptic event has caused virtually every man, woman, and child to vanish into an ominous darkness.
The streets of Detroit, where the story is set, are littered with piles of empty clothes. Look in the many abandoned cars, and there are trousers or skirts lying on the seats, empty shoes on the pedals. Open doors lead into deserted shops and office blocks.
The story follows four survivors holed up in a downtown bar. There's a heartless TV news anchorman (Hayden Christensen), a film geek who operates a movie-house projector (John Leguizamo), a physical therapist and recovering junkie (Thandie Newton), and a 12-year-old boy (Jacob Latimore).
What has befallen the world, they wonder. Why have they, of all people, survived, they ask over and over again.
The premise is simple, yet brilliant: Instead of scaring us with a creature of the night, Anderson gives us darkness itself - that mythical, chaotic nothingness that encircles our otherwise orderly existence.
The dark is a dynamic, mutating mass. Sometimes, you can see human shadows moving in its inky blackness. Sometimes it emits human voices, plaintive murmurs layered one on top of another. Are they calling us to the other side?
Anderson calls Vanishing an "existential thriller." It pits people against the Ultimate - ceasing to exist. (As they are taken, one by one, they chant the mantra, "I exist, I exist.")
This is The Twilight Zone as written by Jean Paul Sartre.
What audacity! What vision!
And, alas, what a failure.
The film's grand concept is betrayed by Anthony Jaswinski's clumsy, mediocre script and by Anderson's inability to manage the talents of a great cast. (The 14-year-old Latimore is exceptional in his feature debut. He's bound to have a brilliant career.)
Vanishing is peopled by stock characters like those in The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, and other disaster pics. Their backstories, told in tedious flashbacks, feel disingenuous, like an afterthought.
One would expect more from Anderson. The indie filmmaker has helmed some of the best episodes of Fox's superb weirdfest, Fringe. And he deftly channeled Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his 2004 feature The Machinist, a harrowing, deeply affecting existential tragedy starring a creepy, emaciated Christian Bale.
But here, he can't pull it off.
He would have been better off adapting Vanishing on 7th Street as an episode of Fringe.