To pull off a film that is, in more ways than one, a radio drama, requires a magic trick. It’s a magic trick with a long history in low budget sci-fi: strong performances and a strong script. To our delight, The Vast of Night, a home-run debut from Andrew Patterson, has both.
Set in the paranoiac shadow of the Cold War, The Vast of Night follows two teens who stumble upon a bizarre frequency that has descended upon their small New Mexico town. Framed in the fuzzy glow of a Twilight Zone-esque broadcast, the film uses its connective genre tissue to its advantage rather than out of any cloying attempt to activate nostalgia. If there is sentimentality, it is the characters’ own unabashed atom-era fascination for the reach of science, and what the future holds. Indeed, the 1950s setting is an indispensable piece of the puzzle not only for its ties to historical close encounters but for the rules it sets for our protagonists. Their fascination with analog recording, radio, and tape is not out of any twee affection but out of a grounded interest. And the film does a marvelous job not only in conveying that interest but its limitations. In this way, The Vast of Night makes a worthy successor to Black Christmas for that coveted Best Use of a Switchboard In a Genre Film superlative.
The film’s sound design is inescapable and essential; from the hum of crickets to the winding of magnetic tape to the tactile bumps of hit-record buttons. We frequently (and boldly) dip into moments of complete blackness; dark pitch where only sound pervades and there is no choice but to really listen. Which, of course, is a delight. The Vast of Night features some of the best long-take vocal performances since Pontypool. There’s the staccato back and forth of Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz), our effortlessly likable young protagonists, who lob 50’s-filtered banter back and forth with a beguiling wit and speed. Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s pulsing drum of a score is a festival-best and evocatively deployed during the film’s most audacious “how the fuck did they do that??” long-take. Spoiler, here’s how they did it: it’s not a drone, it’s a camera strapped to a go-kart, 3-4 inches off the ground, going 40 mph. It’s an immensely stylish shot that is not just for style’s sake. In one take: we literally get the lay of the land, the scale of the town, and a feel for the community that is being put at risk. That particular long take is just one of many astonishingly patient shots, including but not limited to an uncut 10-minute scene at a cordbord. The camera work, by Chilean cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz, is simply amazing. The Vast of Night looks as incredible as it sounds.
Another part of the magic trick: The Vast of Night unfolds in real-time. And the result is an uncanny sense that this is likely how such an event would take place. With flickering lights and dropped calls snowballing into cross-town sprints to scoop up loved ones. It’s rivetingly plausible: that the right people would dig into something strange not by happenstance, but because of their own strangeness. That on a quiet night, in a quiet town, the folks keeping guard of the switchboard and the radio waves might not only systematically pick up that something mysterious was happening, but take it seriously enough to investigate.
The Vast of Night never thinks it’s better than its genre, a fact firmly demonstrated by an ending that sticks to its guns right until the credits roll. This commitment to a kind of internal logic is evident elsewhere too. At one point, the film touches upon race in a way that both makes sense within the realities of the time while avoiding feeling damage-centered or exploitative. It’s a fine line to walk, and it’s to The Vast of Night’s credit that pulls it off as well as it does.
The Vast of Night takes big experimental swings on an independent budget and the fact that it all works is impressive as hell. Patterson is evidently the kind of director happy to take risks in the service of the story, in other words: he’s one to watch. On the whole, the film packs an eerie, paranoid punch that also succeeds in being endlessly sweet, in no small part due to breakout performances from Horowitz and McCormick. The two are straight out of a pulp detective book. I could have watched them for hours.
The Vast of Night is a smaller, wonderful discovery of a film, and to bum a quote from Horowitz’s Evertt, it really razzes our berries. If you’re into suspense-driven sci-fi that puts story first, it’ll razz yours too.