By Lynn Venhaus
It is rare to find a low-budget independent film that is so assured, so confident in its fluid camera movements and spot-on production elements that it makes you believe in the thrilling possibility of movies. “The Vast of Night” is the most pleasant of surprises – a thoroughly satisfying genre film that gets many things right for 89 captivating minutes.
One fateful night in a sleepy town in New Mexico, a naive switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) and cocky radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) begin to suspect some supernatural goings-on that may alter their future. Could it be a UFO? Commies? After all, it is the 1950s. They set out on a mission of discovery as some sort of invasion seems imminent.
In a brilliant film debut, director Andrew Patterson – whose day job included promotional video for the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team – breaks through as a fresh, imaginative talent. It is not so much the plot, which is a standard UFO science fiction tale, but it is the way he builds an eerie tone and intriguing rhythms in this old-fashioned, well-worn story.
The first sign that we are in for a fun ride is framing it as an episode of “Paradox Theatre,” a Twilight Zone knockoff in glorious black-and-white, ‘50s-style. I can imagine sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching this on “Chiller Thriller” or at the drive-in.
Set in fictional Cayuga, N.M., in 1957, most townsfolk are packed inside the local high school gym for a big game with cross-valley rivals. ‘Big fish in a little pond’ DJ Everett “The Maverick” Sloane is setting up the reel-to-reel tape for recording the action and fast-talking with everyone, including 16-year-old Fay Crocker. Both techie nerds, they share a fascination with the future and what may be in store for mankind.
She must work her part-time job as a switchboard operator, so they walk to the town’s communication center, talking in an engaging style, reminiscent of Richard Linklater films. The tracking shot is a dazzling feat while snappy repartee ensues beneath the glow of streetlights.
Patterson’s slowly builds the suspense, aided by M.I. Littin Menz’s striking cinematography. Is this an instance where “good people go bad and smart people go mad,” Everett wonders.
With intelligence and wit, screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger have crafted interesting blocks of dialogue, establishing the characters’ personalities right away. The set-up is almost Altman-esque, the way everyone chatters about a squirrel biting through an electric chord that has wreaked havoc.
What kind of storm is brewing? The phones seem on the fritz with weird noises. People are reporting seeing “something in the sky.” That turns Everett and Fay into super-sleuths. They are determined to crack the mystery, and with the help of two call-in listeners to the radio station, they are certain an invasion of some sort is afoot.
By setting it in the 1950s, when everyone was nervous about the Russians and the Cold War, let alone post-atomic paranoia, that factors into an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The X-Files” vibe as well as a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” feel.
The main duo, Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz convey a wholesome earnestness that is refreshing.
Bruce Davis, as an ex-military man describing secret government operations, is hypnotic during a fade-to-black monologue. So is an elderly shut-in, harboring a dark secret. Gail Cronauer imbues Mabel Blanche with a palpable sadness, as she is convinced that aliens abducted her child years ago but always dismissed if she brings it up. Those segments are reminiscent of old-timey radio plays.
After its Toronto international Film Festival debut last November, “The Vast of Night” was a runner-up to the people’s choice award. At Slamdance in 2019, it won the audience award for best narrative feature. The screenwriters were nominated for best first feature screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier this year.
With its critical raves and crowd-pleasing awards, “The Vast of Night” is now ready to be seen by the public.
“The Vast of Night,” directed by Andrew Patterson; starring Jake Horowitz, Sierra McCormick, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer.
Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language. Run time: 89 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A
Available on Amazon Prime May 29
This review ran in the Webster-Kirkwood Times .
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.