Brad Anderson has been due for years. In a business where hacks like Paul W.S. Anderson (helmer of three Resident Evil films, as well as Death Race, all of which are crap) continually get work, it’s a crime that someone like Anderson can’t seem to break through into the mainstream consciousness. Though, perhaps that’s not what the Connecticut-born filmmaker even wants. While all of his films to date have been rock-solid in their own individual rights, Anderson’s output has been has been inaccessible to audiences not inclined to massage brain muscles while in a theater. He first made waves back in 1998, with the smarter-than-average romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland, but that’s where the smiles ceased; since then, Anderson has delivered some of the most underrated thrillers of the last decade. Session 9 (2001) is perhaps the best modern horror film barely anyone knows about; The Machinist (2004) is unfairly recognized as the Christian-Bale-goes-all-emaciated movie, when it’s actually a taut and dark mind-screw; and Transsiberian (2008) is a train-bound suspense ride that’d leave Alfred Hitchcock grinning if he were still with us. Toss in his laudable TV work (having directed episodes of The Wire, Fringe, and Boardwalk Empire), and it seems time for Anderson to catch that big, elusive break.

vanishing haydenThe bad news: He’s going to have wait a bit longer. Vanishing On 7th Street, the director’s latest effort, works quite well as a showcase for Anderson’s technical chops, but that’s all. The premise itself is a clever slice of supernatural thriller originality: One night, for no known reason, darkness engulfs the world and swallows every person in its path, turning the recently deceased into shadow figures that stalk the still-flesh-and-blood. Streets are littered with crumpled outfits, long shadowy arms slither alongside building walls, and the few living souls left must carry whatever sources of light (flashlights, glow sticks) or else they’re vapor. In Chicago, where Vanishing On 7th Street takes place, the lone survivors are a young television newscaster (Hayden Christensen), a timid movie theater projectionist (John Leguizamo), a mentally fractured physical therapist (Thandie Newton), and street-smart 12-year-old (impressive newcomer Jacob Latimore). Holed up inside a drink-hole (named Sonny’s Bar—get it, sunny?), the foursome quarrels, panics, and continually makes stupid decisions that’ll leave viewers groaning.

It’s commonplace to rip apart a Hayden Christensen performance at this point, so we’ll fall back from that, though, needless to say, he’s as bland as ever here. Not that Anthony Jaswinski’s script gives him any help, though; loaded with moronic character moves and overly preachy dialogue, Vanishing On 7th Street’s written portion constantly asks to be reprimanded. The stale talk of “passing storms” and “heaven and hell” would’ve bombed in any actor’s grasp, so it’s all the more grueling under the command of Christensen and Leguizamo, the latter guilty of the most bungled melodrama. Even Newton, usually reliable enough to raise a film’s acting bar, slips, playing her neurotic character’s like something out of the overacted anti-marijuana campfest Reefer Madness (1936). If not for rookie Latimore’s convincing turn, Vanishing On 7th Street would be a performance nightmare.

To compensate for the heavy-handed script and shoddy acting, Anderson is required to do an excessive amount of heavy lifting behind the camera, for which he’s well equipped. Despite the film’s many problems, it’s quickly paced and quietly unsettling, largely due to Anderson’s camera trickery. The ways he manipulates shadows—subtly dragging pitch-black fingers across the screen’s bottom, for example—score; for such a darkly lit picture, the meant-to-be-eerie imagery throughout Vanishing On 7th Street thrives surprisingly well. He’s even smart enough to know that a movie of this ilk needs more than just cool visuals, augmenting the sound design with low, nonsensical whispers. The final product will make you wish Anderson could single-handedly direct a new-age Twilight Zone, one with better actors and the director’s own writing. Having co-written both the intelligently macabre Session 9 and the unpredictable Transsiberian, he’s no slouch with the pen; Jaswinski could’ve benefited greatly from an Anderson touch-up.

Vanishing On 7th Street is one for filmmaking buffs, as well as heads apt to appreciate a genre flick for its mood even if its actors are ball-droppers. If Anderson ever does cross over to the big leagues, this’ll perhaps be a portfolio inclusion more tell-tale than any of his previous films. Working with inadequate, misshapen pieces, he’s a magician who somehow congealed an enjoyable puzzle.