Plenty of movies are set in the olden times to paper over the cracks in their otherwise thin stories. Maybe, the filmmakers seem to be thinking, if there’s a TV set with a massive antenna poking out of it in the background of the scene, viewers won’t notice how tepid the script is, how lackluster the performances or how lacking the scares. The Vast of Night, which was released in 2020 but is set in the fifties, isn’t just utilizing an ostensibly cool setting, chosen at random, to give its premise a false sense of depth – the time period has everything to do with the story, and the encroaching doom, making it all the more eerie and impactful.
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The film is, astonishingly, the debut feature from director Andrew Patterson, who co-wrote the screenplay, here credited as a “teleplay” in a kitschy nod to The Twilight Zone and other sci-fi anthology shows to which The Vast of Night pays loving homage, with fellow newbie Craig W. Sanger. The cast is also loaded up with newcomers. The biggest name on the call-sheet was likely former Disney kid Sierra McCormick, whom you may recognize from Adam Egypt Mortimer’s ghastly Some Kind of Hate, although that shouldn’t put you off seeing her here, in a completely different and, let’s face it, far better written part (she’s also great in VFW, FYI).
In a stunningly fluid opening tracking shot, Patterson lays out the geography of the small New Mexico town in which his story takes place. The camera weaves in and out of the crowds gathered to watch the high school basketball game – which will prove instrumental later on – before strolling alongside McCormick’s plucky, talkative Fay and her crush Everett (a perfectly priggish Jack Horowitz) as they walk to their respective jobs; hers at the local switchboard and his at a hip, indie radio station. They are among the only people in town not attending the game, which makes them the ideal listeners for the transmission of what sounds like an encoded message from outer space.
Fay and Everett are isolated from each other and, without the benefits of modern technology, they can only communicate using landline telephones. This lends The Vast of Night an element of nerve-shredding urgency each time either of them picks up the line, but particularly when Fay is desperately trying to connect people all over town. The tension is suffocating, so when she finally breaks free and the duo is reunited, it’s a relief – even if you’re briefly left wondering what kind of film this would’ve been if the two leads remained separated throughout. Thankfully, in Patterson’s skilled hands, none of the tension dissipates; it’s simply redirected.
What is immediately striking about The Vast of Night is its lovely texture. Every tiny period detail has been considered and replicated to a gorgeous extent, despite what must have been a scant budget and short shooting period. As the title suggests, much of the action takes place in darkness. But the earthiness of the picture and the richness of the cinematography (courtesy of seasoned pro M.I. Littin-Menz) ensure the colors and details continue to pop even in low light. There are only a handful of locations, but each has its own distinct geography. When Fay takes off running, the camera lopes along with her, desperate to keep up just as we are.
Sci-fi, or more accurately modern sci-fi, tends to tie itself up in knots over-explaining various bizarre occurrences, typically when filmmakers aren’t fully confident in their premise (or, when working with studios, have received too many worried notes about “marketability”). The Vast of Night keeps things simple and is stronger for it. Patterson doesn’t feel the need to explain why, for example, the first image is of a tiny, old-school TV set, as though extraterrestrials are watching the film on another planet, or why the action cuts back and forth to solidify that same kooky setup at various points throughout the movie. In a less accomplished film, Patterson might be accused of sequel-baiting because, by setting the story up as part of an anthology, he and Sanger are suggesting there’s more to come. But the premise of this particular tale is enough to justify its existence and, refreshingly, there’s nothing tying it elsewhere.
The central hook is so irresistible and full of mystery that The Vast of Night could easily have got away with not showing us anything at all. Again, if it were just these two likably nerdy kids on the phone freaking each other out for 90 minutes, that would have been totally cool. But, instead, in the final act, a leap forward is made to clarify, at least in one way, what has really been going on the entire time. With the use of what looks to be some nifty CGI – although they could be models, which would make the effect even more impressive and throwback-y – the filmmakers show their ace card. Happily, it’s not just gloriously effective but completely terrifying, too.
Many movies would risk undoing everything that’s been built up in the preceding hour and change by doing this, and indeed have done in the recent past (see: Prometheus, Alien: Covenant, etc.), but it only makes The Vast of Night a more cohesive and enjoyable experience overall. Although the denouement may read as downbeat or glum, it’s only because we’ve become so accustomed to everything being spelled out for us and wrapped up in a neat little bow. Now, when filmmakers take a chance and do something different – or, in this case, downright risky – it often leaves us feeling confused or exasperated. Here, however, the ending only serves to solidify just how expertly everything else has been set up throughout.
It helps that the performances from McCormick and Horowitz are peerless and naturalistic to a fault – even their regulation spectacles feel worn-in rather than tacked on at the last minute by an overcompensating wardrobe assistant. Fay is eager and erenthusiastic but she’s also brave, responsible and curious. Everett is the ideal foil, a cynical wannabe shock jock whose radio voice is obnoxious until it wavers when faced with evidence of the unknown. It’s testament to how terrific both actors are in their respective roles that watching them painstakingly load and reload tapes into a massive player is captivating rather than dull.
See Also: Joey’s Top 10 Horror Movies of 2020
Although 2020 was a garbage fire in many ways, horror had a great year. From The Invisible Man to The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Scare Package to The Mortuary Collection and everything in between, there was so much to choose from and plenty more that could be easily missed simply because there aren’t enough hours in the day. Maybe that’s why The Vast of Night was such a hit with critics but barely seems to have caused a ripple otherwise. Regardless, this is your all-CAPS recommendation to watch this wonderfully spooky and stunningly gorgeous little movie ASAP. Take it from someone who’s usually left perturbed by sci-fi, this is a movie you cannot live without for another moment. And the best part is, you can watch it from the comfort of your own home without the movie losing any of its power — how many blockbusters can say that?
The Vast of Night is streaming on Amazon Prime now