The Vast of Night is the kind of genre film that makes sifting through piles of average movies worth it. From first-time director Andrew Patterson and co-writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, the movie uses a curious framework as its storytelling device: apparently the entire film is meant to be an episode of a “Twilight Zone”-like television series called “Paradox Theater.” And every so often during the course of the movie, the camera pulls back and we’re reminded that someone is seeing this as a fuzzy, black-and-white TV show instead of the beautifully shot work that fills the screen most of the time (in color, I should add). I’m still not exactly sure why this choice was made or what it adds to the story being told, but it does prepare us for the likelihood that the film will have a Rod Serling-like gut punch ending.
Set in the late 1950s in a small New Mexico town (the film was actually shot in Texas), The Vast of Night introduces us to the two characters who will carry us through their eerie tale: Everett (Jake Horowitz), a young, fast-talking, personable local radio DJ; and 16-year-old Fay (Sierra McCormick), who has a part-time job as a switchboard operator. Director Patterson takes the time necessary to get to know these characters in a series of intentionally paced sequences where they talk to each other and reveal bits and pieces about their home life, their family, and their mutual aspiration to get out of town as soon as they’re able to pursue bigger dreams than it has to offer. So by the time the plot kicks in, we’re actually fully invested in what happens to these two and are desperate to see their dreams through.
It’s the night of a big high school basketball game with a major rival school, and most of the town is in the gymnasium watching, leaving Everett and Fay at their respective jobs. While listening to Everett spin records, the broadcast is interrupted by a strange noise. Seconds later, Fay gets a call that features the identical noise, and soon after, a series of calls are cut off, leaving her a bit on edge. She calls Everett, he listens to the disturbance, and the two decide to enlist the help of local listeners to find out what the sounds are. Shockingly enough, an elderly man named Billy (Bruce Davis) calls in with a story so unnerving, I’m not going to repeat any of it here. Not long after, an older local resident, Mabel (Gail Cronauer), calls with another story that she insists the pair come to her house to hear—one that she insists will confirm the first caller’s wild tale.
It may seem like a strange format for this to occur, but at its core, The Vast of Night is a film that celebrates creepy verbal storytelling. In both scenes with these elderly characters, the film allows them to tell their tales at a leisurely pace, and it only helps sell the premise of the movie all the more. Their words seep into your bones via your ears, and your heart goes out to them as your head is telling you to get the hell away from this whole town, if these stories are true. There are also a couple of remarkable shots done seemingly in one take (which I’m fairly certain would be impossible), including one that takes us from the switchboard offices, across fields, to the high school, through the gym and the in-progress game, and dropping us at the radio station, probably a mile away at least. I don’t know how they faked it, but the sequence is jaw dropping.
As much as the film is firmly set in a moment in history and embraces certain nostalgic elements of the period (there are more than a few hints of the Red Scare living in the margins), The Vast of Night doesn’t feel like a film made in any part of the 1950s. In addition to its sophisticated camerawork, the movie allows us to delve into the personalities of its leads to such a degree that they rise above cliche young people and eventually become fully-formed, authentic human beings who are curious about science, technology and the future. Listen carefully to their seemingly meaningless conversations because the things they’re talking about are interesting and hint at the world to come (as well as a few crazy ideas about the near future that sadly never came to pass).
And make no mistake, Patterson has made a for-real genre work that may involve visitors from another planet or simply the like-minded paranoia that seems to have a permanent home in the southern region of this country. The low-grade tension builds almost imperceptibly, until it’s fully upon us, and then it feels more like a creeping doom. The patience and craftsmanship on display is almost difficult to believe from a feature debut, but don’t take my word for it. Check out this incredible work for yourself.
The film is available now on Prime Video.
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