There’s nothing more satisfying than finding a small, unknown film that ends up being an unexpected gem and delivers on every level. The Vast of Night, a film that recently dropped on Amazon Prime, is one of those finds. Themed after a Twilight Zone episode and with cinematography taken straight from the 60s, this film takes the viewer back to the days of community radio in a small town while presenting a suspenseful and interesting science-fiction story. Even though it was clearly made with a limited budget, director Andrew Patterson makes the most of it and pulls off some creative and enthralling long shots that give the movie a personal, eerie atmosphere. Patterson clearly has a bright future ahead of him despite the visual darkness of The Vast of Night, for this is one of the most intriguing and satisfying debut features of the past couple years.
The movie starts out at a high school gymnasium in the middle of a small rural town in New Mexico at the tail end of the 1950s. An important home basketball game is happening that brings the community together, and the local radio station (WOTW) is commentating the events. The first ten minutes are spent covering this basketball game and introducing the two main characters: Everett (Jake Horowitz), the anchor of WOTW, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), the switchboard operator and a student at the high school. My one flaw of The Vast of Night is that this first portion takes a bit too long to get to the meat of the story, but it still successfully builds the atmosphere so when it arrives at the story I was invested in every single action. Once Fay gets back to her switchboard after walking home from the game, she hears an odd sound coming from both the WOTW broadcast and one of the switchboard channels. This put together with a mysterious call that states something is in the sky above their town makes for a monumental discovery that shatters the town’s perception of their world.
As soon as Fay discovered the odd frequencies, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen. This film may not be a thrill-ride full of explosions and attacks, but it delivers more suspense than the majority of non-stop sci-fi/action movies do. The scene where Fay is switching between calls and trying to find out the cause of these odd frequencies is riveting, and is all done in one long nine-minute shot. This requires extra dedication from actress Sierra McCormick, and she delivers in every way. All the actors in this movie are unknowns, yet every single performance serves the movie excellently. One character is never even seen in person because you only hear his story over the radio, but his charismatic voice acting along with his fascinating and chilling story make his scenes some of the best. However, my favorite performance comes in the last act of the film from Gail Cronauer. I will not give away the nature of her character in the film, but she tells a deeply affecting story that chills you to the core. The entire story is told in one shot in one long monologue, until an angle change near the end affected me as much as the best horror movies. Cronauer gives an emotional, yet determined performance in this scene that makes me wonder where her bigger place in Hollywood is.
Speaking of people who will have a bigger role in Hollywood, debut director/writer Andrew Patterson has some of the greatest potential I’ve seen from a director in a while. He has proven with this movie that he can build an atmosphere of mystery and darkness while keeping the audience in suspense; he can write excellent back-and-forth dialogue and monologues with equal proficiency; and he can direct awe-inspiring sequences of sci-fi with a low budget. There is one scene early in the movie where the camera pans out of Fay’s room, zooms through the entire town, and stops in the middle of the gymnasium where it looks around and captures the game. Patterson does all of this in one continuous take and I have no idea how he pulled it off. To put it lightly, he has a fantastic future with whatever path he chooses to take in the film industry, and I can’t wait to see how he helms his next project.
One of the aspects I appreciate most about The Vast of Night is its ambiguity. There is an obvious presence of extraterrestrial life throughout this movie, but certain important details are withheld from us or never given to us at all. However, what is implied from the stories we hear and what we are led to believe is happening up above the city is much scarier than if we knew for certain or were showed. Because of this uncertainty, the movie stays with the viewer long after the credits roll. Is there something in the sky? If there is, what does it want? Is it benign or has it been controlling and observing us for all of human history? None of this is definitively answered, but the strong implications we get are thought-provoking and creepy, which is what makes The Vast of Night such an underrated gem.
This is no Spielberg’s War of the Worlds; there is hardly any action throughout the entire film, but it is more intense and memorable than any explosion could be. The Vast of Night runs at a brief hour and 29 minutes, yet it more than gets the job done in that time. It takes a simple alien invasion plot and elevates it to a suspenseful and innovative level that only Patterson could have designed. His originality shines in a movie with many bright spots already. The Vast of Night showcases a template for low-budget filmmakers to look to, while providing a memorable and thrilling experience for any watcher. If this was a Twilight Zone episode, it would be one of the best.
I give The Vast of Night an A.