GORE IN THE STORE
THE VAST OF NIGHT ****
Directed by Andrew Patterson.
Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer.
Science-Fiction, U.S., 89 minutes, certificate 12.
On Demand - Amazon Prime
Fans of vintage Sci-Fi cinema and Americana should find themselves in Heaven with Andrew Patterson's atmospheric debut. Framed as an episode of an imaginary Twilight Zone/Outer Limits style show titled Paradox Theater, The Vast of Night guides us through the small Texan town of Cayuga in the 1950s where the local high schools' basketball game draws everyone for miles around. The only two people not attending are teenage phone operator Fay Crocker and fast-talking disc jockey Everett having to attend to their work.
Over a lengthy opening sequence, we get to know the young couple as they walk from the high school to the small phone exchange. The fast-paced dialogue, of which there is a lot, and naturalistic performances expertly fill in these two characters and the remote, near-empty small-town environment they inhabit as well as the social attitudes of the time. Shortly after starting her shift, Fay hears a throbbing, pulsing noise thrumming through the exchange. A sound that seems to be coming from above the clouds. Enlisting Everett's help, they soon find themselves immersed in a story involving clandestine operations and small-town superstition as well as the mysterious threat from above, whatever it may be.
Low in budget and high in ambition this is a whip-smart debut. It manages to provide a fresh spin on the small-town invasion story that was a staple of genre cinema through the 1950s. With its reliance on radio to tell its story, it is reminiscent of Orson Welles infamous 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. The fact that a large portion of the film consists of nothing more than people quietly telling stories shows the level of skill in Patterson's direction and first-time writers Craig W Sanger and James Montague's script. As the source of the sound is gradually revealed, the film effortlessly manages to grip and entertain the viewer.
Patterson displays an impressive visual style throughout. Scenes playing out in long dialogue-heavy takes sit along expertly choreographed Steadicam shots. Most impressive is a single five-minute shot that takes us from Fay's office and swoops over the streets and gardens through the high school stadium ending up at Everett's radio station. It is a small marvel of execution and choreography carried out with the aid of go-karts and multiple camera operators. It expertly lays out the geography of the town and carries a spooky atmosphere with its prevalent low angle.
A level of confidence is displayed throughout belying Patterson's status as a debut director. Not long after his visual set-piece, he lets the camera fade to black as a telephone conversation plays out on the radio. It is a ballsy move and one that works. Also impressive is the fact that the more troubling aspects of American society come to the foreground with the treatment of African American soldiers thrown into the storytelling as well as the shame felt and forced onto a single mother by the small-town attitudes of the time.
Rising in tension throughout it pays off with yet more visual wonders as well as a quietly devastating final shot, aided further by the spare musical score of Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer. Entertaining from start to finish, it manages to combine humorous dialogue in a gradually suspenseful and atmospheric thriller. With the bare minimum of special effects, it proves just as thrilling and exciting, if not more so, than the mega-budget CGI blockbusters that dominate the screen. For fans of the type of storytelling that it emulates this is a welcome reminder of what used to be and an impressive calling card for its debut director.