The Vast of Night couldn’t be more explicit about its influences. Andrew Patterson’s debut film, streaming on Amazon Prime Video as of today, is presented as a spooky episode of a Twilight Zone–esque show called Paradox Theater broadcasting on a retro TV. The film is a cleverly paced, micro-budgeted sci-fi thriller set in the late ’50s, in the shadow of Sputnik. And thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the only way to see it when it opened on the big screen two weeks ago was at the most 1950s of venues: the drive-in theater.
The national closure of movie theaters has sent the usual summer-film season into hibernation. Every blockbuster has been postponed for months, and there’s still no clear idea of when cinemas will reopen on a wide enough scale to welcome those movies back. Drive-ins have gone from antiquated gimmicks to the backbone of today’s (paltry) weekly box-office reports. So it’s fitting that cinema’s strange summer is being kicked off by a throwback like The Vast of Night—a story of amateur radio sleuths hunting an extraterrestrial audio signal that tells a familiar tale with eerie deftness.
The aesthetic is Twilight Zone, and the plot could be right out of The X-Files. But despite its small-screen influences and tiny budget, The Vast of Night is shockingly cinematic, overflowing with the kind of inventiveness you rarely see from a first-time filmmaker. It reminded me of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Rian Johnson’s Brick, or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook—all small-scale genre pieces that functioned as calling-card movies, in which their directors threw every bit of visual panache they could at viewers with the energy of someone who might not get another chance.
The first act of The Vast of Night is told in long, unbroken shots, with actors barking rat-a-tat dialogue (including ’50s-sounding phrases such as “Tune out, man!” and “What’s the tale, nightingale?”) as they mill around a high-school gym. The setting is the fictional small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, and everyone has convened to cheer on the varsity basketball team. Patterson’s camera tails along as Everett (played by Jake Horowitz), a bespectacled smart-aleck radio DJ, roams about trading zingers with other students. Eventually, Everett runs into Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator and a fellow audiophile.
So much of the early action seems inconsequential, but that’s the point. Patterson is nudging the viewer to listen, to pay attention to little details, and to home in on characters who might not seem crucial to the plot. After 20 minutes of chitchat, Fay settles down at her night-shift job and hears a noise over the lines, a humming rattle that indicates things are about to get weird. She alerts Everett, who starts taking calls about the phenomenon at his local radio station. Suddenly the camera is eerily still; there’s no action in the background to distract the viewer. All that listening everyone’s been doing is about to pay off.
It’s deceptively simple stuff, and Patterson embraces that minimalism rather than letting it hamper things. In one sequence, Everett takes a call from a stranger, who tells a story about a government conspiracy in hushed tones; for a while, the screen goes entirely black, forcing the audience to focus on his haunting dialogue. As the tension escalates and Everett and Fay team up to try to figure out the source of the mysterious signal, the movie jumps into high-energy mode, rushing around their empty town frantically in search of answers that seem just out of reach.
Given the miasma of paranoia that hangs over the late ’50s, plenty of possibilities are offered for the unsettling incidents that start to happen in Cayuga: Soviet invasion, CIA interference, aliens visitors, teenage delusion. But the script, by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, doesn’t leave its big mysteries unanswered. Instead, piece by piece, it builds toward a climax that viewers should see coming, if they’ve been paying attention. Impressively, the quietest moments in The Vast of Night are as creepy and effective as the loudest. Patterson’s camera whooshing across the town as panic erupts is a thrilling sight, but so is Fay silently leaning into her switchboard as she tries to identify the noises buzzing out of it.
I wish I could’ve seen The Vast of Night at a drive-in theater, considering the ’50s vibes; it’d be perfectly paired with a trip to the soda fountain afterward. But really, this is a movie made for the cinema, to be seen in the darkest room on the biggest screen possible, with an entire crowd hushed and leaning forward as the suspense begins to build. I desperately hope that experience can return—despite all the charms of this movie, that’s the pleasure I’m most nostalgic for. But it’s satisfying enough to know that viewers around the country can still tune in at home and let this film surprise them. Just make sure you turn off the lights first.