“The Vast of Night” Movie Review


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     Director Andrew Patterson’s feature debut “The Vast of Night” doesn’t necessarily cover any new ground within the expansive science fiction genre, but what the film accomplishes with its unique setting and timeline of events certainly merits further discussion.  Taking place in a fictional small New Mexico town in the late 1950s, the story follows two high school kids and their potential encounter with something they believe is not of this Earth.  And the set up from the first scene is a masterful exercise in the creation of atmospheric tension.  The hazy low light surroundings, skillfully created and shot by cinematographer M.I. Litten-Menz, could easily have indicated the dreadful nature of a horror film, but that’s not where Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger take this heavily influenced yarn that utilizes the innocence of the period coupled with the mystery of the unknown to tell a different kind of story.

     Given the endless array of films over the decades that would seemingly cover the same ground, Patterson has somehow brought forth a sense of originality, though the films “Twilight Zone” style framing device is clear indication the filmmakers are well aware they are trampling on previously covered territory.  And they most certainly are, but the way the story unfolds does indeed leave you guessing as to where things may lead, particularly since the characters our lead duo come upon are giving them the answers all along, though all of it is too incredible for them to believe without seeing things with their own eyes.

     Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a 16 year old high school student in Cayuga, a town minute enough that when the high school is hosting a basketball game, the entire population is literally in the gym watching and cheering the team on.  One of her good friends, Everett (Jake Horowitz), immediately engages her in conversation at the game, as the two leave shortly before tip off to walk to their night jobs with Fay serving as the town’s switchboard operator, and Jake manning the local radio station.  One of the important aspects about this sequence, which sees Patterson glide his camera behind his two protagonists as they walk from the gym to their jobs, is the geography of the town.  If you were in a car, the entire place would be one of those blink and you’ll miss it locations from a highway, and the eerie nature of the town feeling deserted makes the area another character within the story.

     Soon, they both arrive at their destinations with Fay beginning her duties connecting calls for the locals and Everett flooding the airways with the latest tunes at the WOTW radio station, a homage to “War of the Worlds” in a film full of them. But not long after both settle in, a strange sound is heard within the phone system.  When Fay connects Everett in so he can hear it, they determine the best course of action is to play the sound over the radio and ask listeners to help decipher what it is.  And that’s when a person calls in, stating they know exactly where the sound is coming from which leads Fay and Everett on a real time hunt for the source they are convinced is within the town.

     Whether or not “The Vast of Night” will be your cup of tea depends greatly on how capable you are to invest in a dialogue driven story produced on a micro budget and is therefore devoid of the flashy special effects and epic level storytelling audiences are used to today.  To say the film is a throwback would be an understatement and you have so many elements from a number of notable films present throughout which, at times, creates this overwhelming feeling of nostalgia.  But even at a brisk 91 minute running time, the film does take a while to get to where it’s going.  We move from scene to scene with Fay and Everett as they speak on the phone or listen to someone in person with the camera fixed on the character talking for as long as ten minutes at certain points.  All of it is building to something, but I can’t help to wonder if some will compare this to the 2014 indie sensation “It Follows” where not enough happens in the film for it to effectively capture a mainstream audience.

     While watching and listening to these characters, I was brought back to the haunting images seen in 1953’s “Invaders from Mars”, where a traumatized child watches over and over as people from his family venture out beyond their backyard and suddenly drop into the ground as if they’ve fallen through a hole, but have for the moment disappeared.  The child tells his parents, but no one believes him.  One of the characters here tells a very similar story, which leads up to the film’s ultimate conclusion and if you’re still engaged at that point then you’re obviously hooked.  There are shades of the kind of paranoia displayed in “Close Encounters”, but those characters are dismissed by Fay and Everett as they sift through all of this with a pragmatic approach where the audience knows where their going, but they refuse to believe it.

     Regardless of your taste in science fiction, Patterson must be applauded for his work here.  The last time I saw such an effective indie film, where so much was accomplished with less, was Henry Dunham’s 2018 thriller “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek”, which utilized many of the same atmospheric elements that “The Vast of Night” so expertly employs.  The only question is amongst all of the “American Graffiti” style vibe in play, is the payoff worth the journey?  GRADE: B