A small black and white, gold-colored, television displays a fictional serial called “Paradox Theater.” The camera slowly zooms into the action on-screen, displaying a young man walking into a high school gym housing a basketball game. A riff on the Twilight Zone, the entitled episode that’s playing—set during the 1950’s in Cayuga, New Mexico—is “The Vast of Night.” The camera continues to zoom-in until the television’s action is lifted to become the film. A tightly spun science-fiction mystery, and an ode to the instruments of storytelling, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is adorned with small-town teens want for escape in a Spielbergian narrative rife with UFO fantasies ripped from the pages of the X-Files.
Like most Twilight Zone stories, The Vast of Night begins quaintly, in a small town adorned with unassuming characters. Focusing on two, in particular. Everett (Jake Horowitz), who heads the local radio station, is a frosty fibbing cynic, terse and patronizing to a fault. He copies the artifice of popular disc jockeys from the era to display an unearned persona of cool, especially when he speaks in his 1950’s slang, colored by a twangy staccato rhythm. He appears to have only one friend: the nervous and earnest, brainy switchboard operator stylized by her cat-eyed framed glasses, Fay (Sierra McCormick). Unlike Everett, she’s without pretense, yet hangs on his every word; often hoping to impress him by sharing the futuristic science-fiction stories of vacuum-tube transportation she’s consumed in magazines, like a wide-eyed school girl who thinks the boy who traveled to New York with his family one weekend is now a road-weary sage, instead of the babbling jerk he portends himself to be. Nevertheless, their friendship is rooted in a genuine regard for each other’s interests and futures.
In fact, when her switchboard begins receiving ominous voiceless static calls, the giddy Fay excitedly shares the news with Everett. Fay is much like the townspeople she interviews with her voice recorder, those who all remember the squirrel or chipmunk or whatever furry critter that bit through the wires at the school—she’s used to living in a spotless place on the map where nothing much happens. Her’s and the film’s setting is further contextualized by the texture and colors of Jamie Reed’s vintage costume designs: the checkered basketball uniforms—the hues of saffron, blueberry, and antique red composing the skirts and sweaters—and the nostalgically dreamy low-key Kodak filter of M.I. Littin-Menz’s cinematography. In these teens, it’s difficult not to see shades of Spielberg’s suburban science-fiction coming-of-age stories, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T., in The Vast of Night.
There are also long takes; allowing for quiet visuals; patiently edited and strung together by tracking shots and settled close-ups. One tracking shot in particular: traveling just above the grass and pavement, is so unnaturally fast in its speed; as though a pov of this haunting and mysterious force, hinted at by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s auspiciously deep tribal percussive score, lurches forward. There’s an understanding that tension is wrought not just by rapacious cuts, but the uneasy calm that comes without a cut. There are also entrancing visual and auditory queues in Patterson’s drama; in one scene a caller named Billy (Bruce Davis) contacts Everett’s radio show to discuss a clandestine military operation he took part in, that resulted in him discovered a UFO. Soon, the screen goes black while Billy continues his narration. This partly emulates the radio’s communicative aesthetic—where there are no moving images—to draw the viewer further into Billy’s story.
It’s a simple trick that merges mediums: television (Patterson and co. often switch from Kodak color to bands of black and white during this sequence) and radio dramas like Orson Welles’ rendition of The War of the Worlds. Furthermore, it’s an homage to storytelling, and a demonstration of how familiar yet nascent communicative technologies come together to explain and report on the unknown. It’s especially true as Patterson provides odes to the clunky, portable, voice recorders of the era, and close-ups of reel-to-reel audio spools. And yet, as Billy describes the machine that rose high in the sky like sputnik and bounced signals and recordings off each other, what he’s also describing is the modern surveillance state. Which is a terror as familiar to us now as then. Moreover, because Billy is Black, he relates that no one believes him because of his skin color—a fact that remains unfortunately relevant today.
By the final act, after Everett and Fay have spent the night crisscrossing town to investigate the weird phenomenons, Littin-Menz’s cinematography transitions from long distant takes, to rapid bursts attuned to B-movie sensibilities. Consequently, Alexander and Bulmer’s score modulates into sharp impressionistic strings. And Horowitz and McCormick’s full-hearted performances, mixed with Gail Cronauer’s unsettling turn as a prophetic shut-in, imbues The Vast of Night with terrifying vibes replete with a restless hunger to experience the fantastical. Patterson’s directorial debut concludes with the desire to escape, to transcend one’s drab surroundings, consummated by ash, transfixing viewers to say, with every step of his way, “Take me with you.”
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