Night has fallen in Cayuga, New Mexico (population: 492) and a majority of the town is heading over to the local high school for the weekly basketball game. High schooler Fay (Sierra McCormick) is missing the game, having to pull the evening shift at her job as a telephone switchboard operator. With no one making any calls, she spends her time listening to her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a disc jokey on the local radio station. Everett’s show is briefly interrupted by a mysterious signal and moments later when Fay gets a call to route, she hears the same signal over the phone line. The two pair up to try and trace the source of the signal and in the process uncover information that leads them to believe the signal’s origins may truly be not of this world.
There is no denying that The Vast Of Night, the debut film from director Andrew Patterson, wears its influences on its sleeve. Chief among them is writer Rod Serling’s classic The Twilight Zone. The film is framed like a traditional episode of the science-fiction anthology series – here called Paradox Theater – while its small town setting recalls the pastoral hamlets in such episodes as “A Stop at Willoughby” or “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” But there is the same underlying feeling of unease the David Lynch would mine for his own examinations of the dark side of Americana in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Patterson displays a remarkable confidence with his camera for a debut film director in terms of both knowing when to move and when to let it stay still. The film features a remarkable long take that moves through the small town to help us understand the local geography that will become important later as well as get to know a number of the characters we will be spending the film’s runtime with. This is virtuosic work without ever getting too showy. In two other instances, Patterson just lets a character talk and we sit there with them. The first instance is a ten-minute long take of Fay at her switchboard, going about her job as it starts to become apparent that something mysterious in happening in the town. In the second, Fay and Everett have met with an older woman who has had an encounter with a UFO, and Patterson just lingers on her face as she tells her story. In each instance, he is trusting in the power of the story being told and the minimal reactions from those in the scene to convey what needs to be conveyed to the audience. It allows us to sit undisturbed in each scene, fully immersing us.
Another, perhaps less obvious influence on the film is 1958’s The Blob. Like that film’s two lead teenagers – played by Steve McQueen and Aneta Corsaut – Fay and Everett are stylized teenagers, maybe a bit too smart and precocious to be real. And like the teens in The Blob, they are trying to unravel a mystery that the adults of the town don’t necessarily believe in. But that is what the film needs to guide the audience through the story. Is there a spark of something between the two? Maybe, but The Vast Of Night has no real time to explore that, intent, instead on getting the two characters to their third act destination.
Another thing that Patterson manages to do extremely well, is create a palpable feeling of dread that slowly builds over the course of the film. The night time darkness is almost its own character in the film, lurking in every shot. He is playing with our own primal fear of the dark in a very effective manner. Overall, the film is a remarkable debut feature, a first installment of hopefully a very interesting career to come.