For me the smile-inducing opening to Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” is just rippling with nostalgia. I wasn’t around during the original Twilight Zone run, but thanks to VHS, syndication, and a father who loved the show, it’s a slice of television history I know pretty well. I didn’t need an introduction to The X-Files. I was there when the series debuted in 1993 and have seen every episode and movie, most of them more than once. Those influences are all over this film.
So when Patterson opens his movie focused on a 1950’s era Philco television, and a show begins playing on it with a host saying in his best Rod Serling voice “You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. A slipstream caught between channels. You are entering Paradox Theater. Tonight’s episode: The Vast of Night.”, needless to say I was hooked.
After the cool introduction the camera blends into the television screen and just like that we’re in the latest episode penned by co-writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. The duo’s story is built around a pretty familiar B-movie science-fiction idea. But what sets their script apart is the dense, character-enriching dialogue and the way they steadily build suspense especially in its second half.
The story takes place on the back-end of the 1950’s in Cayuga, New Mexico, a small town where everybody knows everybody. Sierra McCormick (so good here) plays 16-year-old Faye, an unashamed technology nerd who works part-time as a switchboard operator. She grabs her brand new Westinghouse tape recorder and heads to the gym where the entire town is gathering for the first high school basketball game of the season. There she meets her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a DJ at the local one-room radio station.
This central friendship is essential to the story and Patterson gives it plenty of room to breathe. Take one especially long rapid-fire conversation we get early in the film. Faye and Everett walk and talk from the gym across town to the telephone office where she works. The camera follows like a silent third party, strolling along and listening to their every word. It shows the incredible amount of confidence the first time director has in his material and more importantly his two stars.
As she settles down for a slow evening on the switchboard, Faye picks up a mysterious frequency she’s never heard before. She calls Everett in the middle of his radio show and he too is intrigued. Always looking for “good radio“, Everett play the sounds on air which leads to a mysterious caller, a secret tape reel, and other hints that something isn’t right. And like a mini Mulder and Scully the two friends follow the growing trail of clues because (as Chris Carter so frequently reminded us) “The Truth is Out There“.
Don’t misunderstand me, this isn’t some knockoff or copycat flick. Patterson, who cut his teeth shooting commercials, surprises with several bold visual choices and interesting aesthetic concepts that give his film its own identity. Some of it may come across as showy to some, but I loved the long, meticulously arranged tracking shots, the audacious fades to black which force us to focus on every word in the background, and the handful on instances where we’re pulled out of the television just for a few seconds, almost like a commercial break, and then put right back in. There is rarely a moment when Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz aren’t doing something interesting with their camera.
“The Vast of Night” may not sport an entirely original concept, but it’s everything that goes into presenting it that makes this movie special. The 1950’s rural Americana setting is full of detail from period costumes to Cold War anxieties. The fun and absorbing dialogue keeps us in the heads of the characters and always in tune with their personalities. And there’s the chemistry between McCormick and Horowitz – so lively and natural. It all makes for a fabulous debut from Andrew Patterson and a fresh reminder of why I love movies.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS