On Movies: Desolate horror flick's soul lies in Detroit

John Leguizamo in "Vanishing on 7th Street," filmed in beleaguered Detroit. But "once you look beyond the decrepitude," says director Brad Anderson, "it's quite a beautiful city."
John Leguizamo in "Vanishing on 7th Street," filmed in beleaguered Detroit. But "once you look beyond the decrepitude," says director Brad Anderson, "it's quite a beautiful city."
Posted: February 27, 2011

If you're an independent filmmaker in the market for the postapocalyptic - desolate streets, burned-out edifices, a scape of ruin and doom - Brad Anderson can point you in the right direction.

In Vanishing on 7th Street, a group of strangers - a movie projectionist (John Leguizamo), a TV reporter (Hayden Christensen), and a physical therapist (Thandie Newton) - find themselves huddled in a dark, foreboding burg, where all the power has gone out and a weird, malevolent shadow seems to be encroaching from every corner.

The film, which opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse (and has been available on demand for the last few weeks), was shot in Detroit. Part of the initial appeal of the locale was that it allowed Anderson and his producers to take advantage of Michigan's film-production tax credits. But once they set up shop for the quick (20 days) shoot, the director realized he'd really lucked out.

"It ended up being the best place for us, creatively," Anderson explains. "Without sinking a lot of money into our production design, we could cordon off streets and very quickly get that empty, vanished look. . . . Vacant bars and churches, dead-ends, alleyways. But that's not all. Once you look beyond the decrepitude, it's quite a beautiful city. All these beautiful, old, architecturally significant buildings and cool storefronts. It's very cinematic."

Anderson, based in New York, says that he was heartened to see the Chrysler ad starring Eminem during the Super Bowl - a commercial that was "a shout-out to Detroit," celebrating the Motor City's industry with pride.

Vanishing on 7th Street is definitely a genre film, a neo-B that tips its hat to film noir and horror. It is also very deliberately open to interpretation. Is this an End of Days allegory? An environmental cautionary tale? There are no easy answers - in fact, no answer at all - for the creeping menace that shrouds the metropolis and makes most of its citizens simply disappear.

"It's not meant to be like the Left Behind series," Anderson says, referring to the Canadian-produced Christian eschatological series that's earned millions at the box office. "I mean, that's one interpretation of it, but . . . what was interesting to me about the script is that it offers up this incredibly apocalyptic disaster and this huge mystery, and throws in possible explanations along the way, and each of the characters gloms onto what they think might be happening. But we never fully offer up any singular explanation to what the heck is going on.

"It just ends on an unresolved note. . . . Maybe that's a bit daring. You certainly couldn't do it on a studio movie. But it's an independent film, and I liked the idea, because it seemed to keep the mystery alive to the very end. There's something to me that's very unsettling about not having a real understanding of what's happening. Like being left in the dark, literally.

"I know that audiences these days have been conditioned to expect everything to be neatly tied up at the end, and have all the answers wrapped up for you. We purposely chose to cut against that convention."

At the same time, Anderson scatters clues and signs throughout.

"Thandie Newton's character seems to interpret [the events] as The Rapture. She's sure there's some religious explanation, some biblical explanation. But maybe there's some scientific explanation - like a black hole has moved through the universe, sucking people into it, or the fourth dimension has opened up, or matter and antimatter are at war."

Yeah, but Vanishing on 7th Street draws to its ambiguous conclusion with two of its characters - a boy and a girl - in a church.

"Certainly, there's a lot of religious, Christian iconography," he concedes. "But to me, it was more about just being spooky. The idea that here's this beautiful old church that's supposed to be a refuge from the darkness, a place founded on the notion that light and salvation are at hand, and now it's just completely infected with this darkness!"

And if there's a joke in the fact that Leguizamo's character is a projectionist at a multiplex, Anderson's happy to acknowledge it. "You can't escape darkness; it's an all-encompassing part of our lives - light and darkness. That's what movies are - movies are just a series of light and shadows, you can't escape it. So when suddenly that becomes the threat, when darkness itself becomes the monster, then that's a terrifying thought."

Anderson directed Sunday night's Oscar nominee Christian Bale in the intense and scarifying 2004 drama The Machinist, and he and Bale are planning to reteam for an adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel Concrete Island. Anderson, who has directed episodes of The Wire, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, and Fringe between movie projects, has a couple of other things in the works. His "labor of love," however, is not a moody thriller or a bleak existential sci-fi number, but a movie musical.

"I've been working on it for six years now, and we were close, with casting and a start date, when the financial crisis hit," he reports. The project, Non-Stop Brazil, will work like Across the Universe, using a set of songs - 1960s bossa nova and samba hits by Gilberto Gil and Antonio Carlos Jobim - and building the story around the lyrics. It takes place in 1960s Rio.

"Musicals are a tough sell," he says, "even though there's been a resurgence in the last couple of years. . . . It's not a big-budget studio movie, but it's not some little mumblecore movie either. It will take some money."

And it probably won't be shot in Detroit.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

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