Retro-feel science fiction offering The Vast of Night (U.S., 2019) is homage done right. With loving nods to Rod Serling’s original run of The Twilight Zone, director Andrew Patterson’s debut feature uses that beloved, classic television series as a springboard for an original vision that places viewers smack-dab in 1950s New Mexico for its 89-minute running time.
Radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) is regarded as a technical whiz in the small town of Cayuga, and when he goes to the local high school to try and help out with a wiring problem, bubbly student and part-time phone operator Faye (Sierra McCormick) asks him to help her figure out how her new handheld tape recorder works. Viewers are introduced to these two characters through rapid-fire exchanges that recall both classic screwball comedy and David Mamet-style dialogue. The screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger is loaded with sharp interchanges and period-authentic expressions.
With most citizens of the town at the evening high school basketball game, Faye and Everett find themselves trying to identify a mysterious sound coming through the local phone lines. After Everett plays the sound on the air, a caller named Billy (the voice of Bruce Davis) who claims to be a retired military worker all too familiar with the sound lays the groundwork for a conspiracy mystery, which is furthered when a homebound woman named Mabel (Gail Cronauer) reveals a disturbing incident in which her son disappeared many years earlier. Billy’s stories will be instantly relatable to listeners of the late Art Bell’s various radio and internet radio shows, during which the host would field similar calls from people claiming to have had direct experience with military cover-ups and knowledge of top-secret information.
The characters of Everett and Faye are instantly likeable and engaging, and easy to root for as they run around an almost silent town to try and solve a puzzle that only they and a few others are aware is taking place. Horowitz and McCormick are both superb, and bring a believability and charm to their roles.
Patterson keeps things rolling at a steady, compelling pace as the mysteries of the night unravel. The Vast of Night goes for an eerie, enigmatic vibe rather than all-out thrills and chills, but it definitely rewards viewers with a satisfying climax.
Miguel Ioann Littin Menz’s (Hands of Stone, 2016; Araña, 2019) cinematography is beautiful, and the film is chock full of hypnotic tracking shots and superb long takes. Style oozes from every frame of The Vast of Night, and the set design and costume design are dead-on authentic in this period piece.
The heart and soul of The Vast of Night is storytelling. The film uses radio of the past as an anchor, including Billy’s revelations, but one of its most gripping scenes involves Mabel telling a heartbreaking tale of how her life fell apart as Faye and Everett listen, stunned. Montague and Sanger nail the yarn and dialogue, and Patterson and his cast and crew bring those elements to vivid, heartwarming cinematic life.
The Vast of Night screened at the Overlook Film Festival, which ran 30 May –2 June in New Orleans, Louisiana.