The Vast of Night: A Charmingly Nostalgic Sci-Fi Chiller
A sleepy town where the high school basketball game is the social highlight of the week. Two kids on the geekier side, looking to find a way to make their mark on the world. An extraterrestrial mystery to solve. The Vast of Night may be paying aesthetic homage to the 1950s and 60s of The Twilight Zone, but at its core it’s more indebted to the Spielbergian eighties than anything. First-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson, working off a screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, understands that a little heart goes a long way and turns the low-budget sci-fi premise into a slow-burning but crowd-pleasing adventure.
Back to The Twilight Zone though: The Vast of Night doesn’t merely evoke the feel, it uses the sci-fi classic as a framing device, positioning the entirety of the film as an episode of a Zone-esque television program, shown first on an old-timey television in fuzzy black and white before transitioning to wonderfully grainy full-screen pseudo-sepia. As bookends it’s a clever choice that primes the audience for what’s to follow, but Patterson seems to be a little too enamored of the trick and overplays his hand — he regularly returns to presenting the action via the small grayscale TV screen, a jarring effect that breaks the film’s spell rather than enhancing the mood.
The more effective evocation of bygone media comes courtesy of the film’s adoration for the radio serial. As the young protagonists — Everett (Jake Horowitz), a local radio DJ and charming know-it-all, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a high school switchboard operator with a voracious appetite for knowledge — bond over their shared technical occupations and their dreams of turning the gig into something modestly bigger, we get an extended look at the operation of a small-town radio station. Or perhaps I should say an extended listen: some of the most enthralling sequences in the film take place in near total darkness, the screen going black while a disembodied voice tells their story over the crackling radio wires, a reminder of the eerie power of radio that its progeny, the podcast, can’t quite recapture.
It’s this piece of auditory storytelling, a follow-up to and potential explanation for a strange sound breaking into the night’s programming, that kicks the plot into a higher gear, sending Everett and Fay running around their New Mexico town in search of answers. Patterson and cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz follow them with a constantly roving camera, a flourish that heightens the unease by giving the sense that our protagonists are being watched, monitored by some invisible alien presence just off screen — when combined with the stillness of the radio sequences, it’s indicative of Patterson’s skill with modulating tone through visual storytelling.
Running only ninety minutes, the film winds up resolving itself a little abruptly, with a mostly inevitable conclusion that isn’t entirely satisfying. The Vast of Night lingers with you though, not for how it ends, but for how it begins. For evidence of Patterson’s potential one only needs to look to a bravura sequence in the film’s first act, an expertly choreographed walk-and-talk that fully develops both character and setting. At the end of it we know exactly who Everett and Fay are and exactly where they live, which sets the stage for everything to come: it’s the sort of town where you’d never expect anything out of the ordinary to happen, which of course means it’s the sort of town where something out of the ordinary is certainly going to happen. And for two kids who clearly crave a little excitement, you’ll be on the edge of your seat waiting to see what the night has in store.