As a teenager growing up in backwoods Massachusetts, one of my favorite ways of passing the time (apart from loitering in video stores and digging through the Portal of Evil archives) was to stay up late, slip into a pair of big puffy headphones, and scan the dial on the family stereo in search of radio weirdness. I never found anything truly unusual (save for my first encounter with “Detachable Penis” and the odd broadcast of Coast to Coast AM), and in retrospect I’m not quite sure what I was looking for in the first place; there probably aren’t a lot of numbers stations to be found on the FM dial. But there’s something undeniably eerie and ineffably strange in slowly turning the dial, drifting through the modulating static in between snippets of fuzzy Top 40– especially when you’re deep in the woods and surrounded by darkness. Chances are you’re not going to capture a transmission from another world, but the more you search, the less you can rule it out.
This eeriness of the airwaves serves as the foundation of The Vast of Night, a nifty little low-budget sci-fi thriller making its debut today on Amazon Prime. Loosely framed as an installment of a fictional television anthology series called Paradox Theater (an obvious riff on The Twilight Zone), The Vast of Night takes place over the course of a single night in a small desert town in 1950s New Mexico (a locale that’s roughly to atom-age paranoia as New England is to eldritch terror). On one end of town is laconic radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), spinning 45s and taking calls on the graveyard shift. On the other side is teenage switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a budding hi-fi aficionado pursuing Everett with little-sisterly inquisitivity (and maybe just a little bit more). Somewhere in the expanse between is a high school basketball game, which houses just about everyone else in town on account of being literally the only thing to do. As Fay patches callers through to their proper extensions, she comes across a mysterious signal, indecipherable and of unknown origin but strangely compelling. Intrigued, she patches the noise through to Everett, who puts it live on air in an act of proto-crowdsourcing. Sure enough, the calls start coming in– as do reports of strange lights and objects in the night sky. As the plot thickens, Fay and Everett take to the streets to get to the bottom of the mystery– but, as often happens, one mystery leads to another.
Superficially, with its quirky small-town location and wide-eyed sense of wonder, The Vast of Night recalls the suburban fantasy epics produced by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s (or, more specifically, such latter-day works of Amblinsploitation as Stranger Things or Super 8). But director Andrew Patterson has crafted a much more slippery work, with far more going on behind its horn-rimmed glasses than empty nostalgia. Rather than dazzle us with sparkly spectacle, the camera often seems to be lurking in the darkness, following the characters as they meander across deserted backstreets (much of the camerawork appears to be aided by a low-flying drone, a technique I’m honestly surprised I haven’t seen in more film). Likewise, the characters, while falling roughly into familiar small-town-dreamer archetypes, speak in a fast-paced patter more in line with Sturges than Spielberg (credit here must be given to McCormick and Horowitz, who flawlessly execute their rapid-fire banter across seemingly endless tracking shots). The result is simultaneously comfortable and disorienting– and that’s before the flying saucers show up.
As someone who’s seen a lot (like, a lot a lot) of low-budget genre films, one truism I’ve come to learn is that the less the filmmaker attempts to ape a “real” movie, the better. While the appeal in homebrewing a backyard blockbuster is self-evident, unless your name is Robert Rodriguez you’re probably not going to create something that can go toe to toe with Michael Bay. The films that succeed are the ones that play by their own rules, that bend their limitations into a unique cinematic grammar. It is in this area that The Vast of Night excels. The centerpiece of the film is a phone call from a man who identifies himself as Billy (Bruce Davis) and claims to have firsthand experience with the noise. Where most films would cut to a flashback (complete with period costumes and low-budget effects), Billy remains a disembodied voice in the ether; the camera, for its part, cuts back and forth between a wireless radio, Everett’s awestruck face, and, for several audacious minutes, a black screen. The effect is incongruously thrilling, simultaneously recalling classic radio drama (not for nothing are the station’s call letters WOTW) and presenting something entirely new.
Of course, one could less charitably describe this as lampshading a low budget– and, for sure, it certainly has that. There are times when The Vast of Night feels just a hair too slight; we hear the phrase “There’s something in the sky!” far more than we ever see it, and the ending, while clearly an homage to the twists of Rod Serling, could perhaps stand to be a little less opaque. But I’ll take the occasional frustration in service of a film with such invention, energy, and spooky ambience. The town of Cayuga, New Mexico, clearly exists on the same roadmap of spooky fictional towns as Twin Peaks, Night Vale, and Eerie, Indiana, and even when nothing happening is more exciting than fixing the wires in a high school gymnasium, it is a joy to inhabit. Like the spare country instrumentals Everett Sloan sends drifting over the desert airwaves, The Vast of Night will worm its way into your consciousness– and like the static between the stations, it’s impossible to resist.
The Vast of Night
dir. Andrew Patterson
Now streaming on Amazon Prime
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