“The Vast of Night,” director Andrew Patterson’s terrific debut feature, isn’t
afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve. They’re impressive influences. It’s
an impressive sleeve. The most obvious is “The Twilight Zone” — Patterson uses a
knockoff show called “Paradox Theater,” complete with an old-timey TV set, as a
framing device. We zoom in through the black-and-white screen into the world of
Cayuga, New Mexico, in the late 1950s for an episode called, yes, “The Vast of
But there’s also a little “X-Files” here, a little “American Graffiti” there.
Actually, maybe a lot. Yet it’s neither homage nor copy. Patterson uses these
shows and films as jumping-off points, not destinations.
The opening scene follows Everett (Jake Horowitz), a too-hip-by-half DJ at WOTW,
the town’s radio station, as he sets up a recorder for a high school basketball
game, checks in on an electrical problem, pranks a trombone player, smoking
cigarette after cigarette as he goes. (Everyone in America smokes, he says at
Patterson’s showing off a little here, with a tracking shot following Everett as
he goes that makes you take notice. But he’s just getting started. Fay (Sierra
McCormick), a science enthusiast at the high school who works as a telephone
switchboard operator, has a new tape recorder and she wants Everett to show her
how it works. So they stroll through the parking lot, as he shows her how to
interview people arriving for the game. The dialogue can be hard to follow —
filming Fay and Everett from behind doesn’t help — but we’re already getting the
visual sense of the town, and a feel for its residents.
Everett walks Fay to work (they’re not a couple; he just requires an audience,
on the air and off), and he checks in at the station. Things are proceeding as
normal until Fay takes a call from a woman on a crackly line. There’s something
in the sky, she seems to be saying.
The radio station’s broadcast gets interrupted momentarily by a strange sound.
It also comes through on a call to Fay. She patches it through to Everett, who
broadcasts it and asks if anyone knows what it is. (He suspects Soviets. Fay is
thinking maybe something a little more otherworldly.)
Somewhere along the line, Patterson gives us a tracking shot that goes from the
switchboard office through town, through the basketball game (we see a few
baskets made), up and out of the gym and on to the radio station. Again,
Patterson is trying to wow us — he succeeds — but the shot also gives us, in a
quick tour, a sense of how small the town is, how deserted it is when everyone’s
at the game, the excitement at the gym and a general sense of foreboding and
creepiness that never lets up.
A caller named Billy (Bruce Davis) has an idea about the sound. He was in the
Army and remembers hearing the sound before. He was part of a secret group
digging a hole for a secret … something or other the government had captured. He
later got sick, as did others on the detail. He doesn’t know everything — the
government only told small groups a little, so they couldn’t put it all
together. But he knows the sound.
An old woman (Gail Cronauer) also calls, with another story. Everett and Fay now
running around town trying to figure out what is going on — Fay not at all
afraid but excited about the possibilities; Everett as cynical as any newshound
can be in his early 20s — pay her a visit.
The whole thing gets resolved in the end — the script, by James Montague and
Craig W. Sanger, isn’t the most original — and it’s all a little on the nose.
But that’s more of a quibble than anything. Patterson trusts his audience,
something directors working in genre films are often reluctant to do. There are
long — seriously, really long — stretches of dialogue, though it always advances
the story. At times, Patterson simply lets the screen go blank. But that’s an
aesthetic choice, something he’s earned by the time he employs it. The direction
in the film is terrific, with an atmosphere and vibe so pervasively thick you
can practically feel what it’s like in the town.
And on this particular night — this vast night — it’s creepy indeed.