The Vast of Night makes no bones about its creative influences. It’s quite upfront about what types of entertainment it’s channeling right from its opening scene. This sequence frames the events of the movie as an episode of a TV show called Paradox Theater, an obvious pastiche for The Twilight Zone. The subsequent film also shares influences with everything from 1980s Amblin productions to the works of Stephen King to War of the Worlds. All of these influences are told in a story about radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and High Schooler Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). On a seemingly normal night in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico, a strange sound comes through the local radio station.
What could be responsible for this noise? At first, it’s a total mystery until a caller informs both Everett and Crocker that what’s going on is something truly out-of-this-world…literally. Screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger show an impressive sense of resourcefulness in telling this sci-fi thriller yarn on a limited budget. It’s easy to imagine somebody penning a version of this story that would overreach the grasp of the budget, undercutting the mood of The Vast of Night in the process. Montague and Sanger, meanwhile, figure out restrained ways of communicating tension that feel totally organic to the story. The number of locations and characters are limited, but they’re exactly what The Vast of Night requires to tell its story. Quality over quantity in action.
Tension in The Vast of Night is communicated primarily through extended monologues delivered by the tragically knowledgable characters Billy (Bruce Davis) and Mabel Blanche (Gail Croneur*). Montague and Sanger craft dialogue for both individuals that captures decades of woe stemming from how the otherworldly intruders have impacted their lives. This sense of lived-in angst is well-realized in the individual performances of Davis and Croneur, both of whom effectively communicate a lifetime of woe in how they divulge information to the protagonists. These Vast of Night characters convey a vividly eerie quality that ably demonstrates how you can wring so much suspense out of just characters talking, provided the writing and acting are up to scratch.
It also helps to have a talented director at the helm. Luckily, The Vast of Night has just that in filmmaker Andrew Patterson. Though he’s making a film that clearly owes a debt to many proceeding pop culture properties, I was thoroughly impressed with how Patterson’s filmmaking style doesn’t just mimic the camerawork of classic Twilight Zone episodes or Amblin movies. A penchant for sustained wide shots. The use of a completely black screen to accompany some of Billy’s dialogue. An extended single-take traveling all across Cayuga. These are all well-done visual feats in The Vast of Night that convey imaginative decisions on the part of Patterson as a director rather than just copying other movies.
Patterson’s strong direction of the actors helps to renders characters like Everett and Crocker as believable human beings as well as people decidedly from the 1950s. This gives the viewer characters to dramatically invest in without eschewing all the fun possibilities of setting a movie in America in the 1950s. The best way this time period is reflected in The Vast of Night is in the dialogue in Montague and Sanger’s screenplay. Characters engage in snappy back-and-forth banter all while speaking in such colorful colloquialisms like “You sound like a cat who just swallowed a possum!” It’s all so much fun to listen to and it helps to sell a sense of normalcy in Cayuga that the sudden presence of strange unidentified noises can chillingly upend.
Lead actors Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick are clearly having a ball with this specific type of dialogue and they smartly deliver it without a trace of irony. Horowitz and McCormick’s execution of their dialogue never functions as a send-up of old-timey speaking styles. They’re totally throwing themselves into these roles and that includes lending authenticity to how they deliver their lines. While I may have had a handful of quibbles with The Vast of Night, including that, when all is said and done, the story could stand to have more to say about its pop culture influences. Overall, though, this is an extremely well-crafted production. The Vast of Night smartly pays homage to mid-20th-century sci-fi fare while also establishing its own intriguing identity. In other words, The Vast of Night really razzed my berries!
* = I just about screamed when Gail Croneur stepped on the screen because she actually taught me in two separate theater courses at Collin College two years back! How exciting to see her in here and doing such good work too!