Vast of Night, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/27/20 17:44:43
In the last few weeks, I have seen a number of genre films—including current box-office champ “The Wretched”—that struck me as projects that might have worked perfectly as an episode of an anthology show like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” but wound up losing something along the way in the effort to stretch things out enough to make them into features. In the case of “The Vast of Night” (premiering on Amazon Prime), it takes that a step further by presenting itself as an episode of “Paradox Theater,” an ersatz anthology show whose opening, in which a narrator speaking in clipped cadences informs us that “you are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten,” will certainly sound familiar to many viewers. The irony is that while those other films did not quite work because they were telling stories that might have been more effective in a shorter format, this one is a creatively audacious and smashingly entertaining throwback to everything from those aforementioned shows to the wild creations of the late, great Arch Oboler—the producer who chilled radio audiences with exquisitely designed sonic landscapes that convinced listeners that they were hearing people pulled inside out by a fog or the sounds of a giant chicken heart destroying the world—that finds debuting director Andrew Patterson working wonders with what I can only presume was a micro-sized budget.The film takes place sometime in the latter part of the 1950s in Cayuga, New Mexico, a town so small that when it is said that practically the entire population is over at the high school to watch a big basketball game, you can believe. Among the few who aren’t attending the game are a couple of teenaged audiophiles—Fay (Sierra McCorick), who is 16 and works nights as the town’s switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), who is a couple years older and the local disc jockey. As they settle in to their respective jobs for the evening, Fay begins hearing some strange noises over one of the lines and contacts Everett to see if he can make any sense out of it. When he can’t he broadcasts it in the hopes that someone in his not-exactly-vast audience can explain it. This inspires a couple of calls that suggest that something of an outer-worldly nature may be responsible and using the information they can glean, Everett and Fay head out into the night to get to the bottom of the mystery and see if they are simply caught up in a bit of Cold War-style paranoia or if there really is something of an alien nature out there.
The basic set-up in the screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger is solid enough—the kind of premise that could fuel anything from a low-budget Fifties B movie to the likes of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—but it is the unique way in which the story is presented that makes “The Vast of Night” so fascinating. Many of the most evocative moments in the film are presented in a manner that explicitly recalls the tricks used by old radio shows to create their convincing atmospheres—this is presented in such an effective manner that most viewers may not even realize how little is actually being shown until long after the film is over. This approach might suggest a filmmaker who is not too strong on their technique but there are any number of formally inventive sequences that find Patterson dazzling viewers with his visual style without distracting in even the slightest from the unfolding story. The film also finds another connection with “The Twilight Zone” in the way that it is able to slip moments of social commentary into the proceedings. In one of the most poignant moments, all the more so because the film does not call too much attention to it, an unseen caller to Everett’s show calmly tells a strange story involving the possible alien threat and how he may have unwittingly helped participate in a military coverup of a similar incident a few years earlier. When he is asked about why he never mentioned this to anyone before, he matter-of-factly remarks that since he is black, he just assumed that anything that he or the others that he worked with, all of whom were either black or Hispanic, would just be dismissed out of hand because of the color of their skin.Beyond the obvious comparisons to “The Twilight Zone,” the other work that “The Vast of Night” reminded me of—in a good way, I hasten to add, is the alternately beloved and reviled “The Blair Witch Project.” Like that film, it offers a low-fi but canny take on familiar genre tropes that maximizes its small budget with ingenuity, cleverness and all the other traits that money cannot buy. (Also like that film, it has a finale whose lack of a conventional payoff may frustrate some viewers.) From start to finish, this is a smart and always-inventive work that marks Andrew Patterson as a talent to watch. To call “The Vast of Night” an early standout in the summer movie season almost seems like a lightly veiled insult under the extraordinary current circumstances but that is the truth. In fact, if things were normal and we were currently swimming in the usual array of big-budget behemoths, I suspect that it would still be standing head and shoulders above the competition.
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