“The Vast of Night” is set in the 1950s in a small town in New Mexico, and if you know your UFO crash-site geography, you might be able to guess where this story is headed. But still, director Andrew Patterson’s spooky and very charming debut about two outsiders who bond over the course of one strange night is packed with nifty surprises. This is a thriller nostalgic for the days of letterman jackets, rotary phones, Cold War-era conspiracy theories, and when everybody, even kids, smoked. With his retro, lo-fi, low-budget first feature, director Patterson should easily expect Hollywood to soon start throwing plenty of higher-concept genre fare at him, and on the basis of the supreme confidence of “The Vast of Night” alone, he’s ready for it.
Framed as a kind of “Twilight Zone” episode out of a fictional show called “Paradox Theater,” “The Vast of Night” centers on Everett (Jake Horowitz), a hip-looking, wise-talking, chainsmoking radio DJ, and a whiz-kid switchboard operator, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). He hosts late-night radio (the entirety of this film takes place after dark) at WOTW, the town’s local station. As the movie opens, he’s in a high-school gymnasium attending to an electrical problem when he’s basically accosted by Fay. She’s eager to show him her new tape recorder, which he helps her learn to use as they walk and talk with the the kind of overlapping jibber-jabber of a Robert Altman movie. It’s just the first of many long, winding takes that occasionally tip “The Vast of Night” in the direction of feeling like a play.
The dialogue can be tricky to follow, but the opening sequence is meant to establish the easy rapport these two have, and their zesty enthusiasm for all things science-y. Fay, for example, is overflowing with brainy ideas about where technology might be headed, predicting things like what are basically now smart cars and smartphones, to which Everett scoffs. Their dynamic is, therefore, even a little bit Mulder and Scully, with Fay the reckless believer, and Everett the more cool-headed skeptic.
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Events take an eerie turn once, late at night, Fay discovers a bizarre radio frequency pouring out somewhere from the crossed wires of the switchboard, followed by the frantic call of a woman whose speech, though garbled by a shoddy signal, clearly indicates someone trying to take cover from some unexplained threat up above. When Fay patches in Everett, he’s quick to write off the unidentified noise as the work of the Soviets. But not Fay, who suspects something extraterrestrial. Again, the Mulder and Scully dynamic is at play here.
Everett, dispatching the phantom noise out to his listeners, ends up fielding some pretty weird stories, including one unsettling account of a military experiment involving building some kind of ominous structure, that all point to a government cover-up in the skies. These spooky transmissions suggest that “The Vast of Night” could also quite easily work as a radio play, like something out of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre on Air.” The paranoia oozing everywhere also recalls 1950s B-movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but with the wide-eyed lens and wonder of an early Steven Spielberg film, “The Vast of Night” feels more like a 1970s film set in the 1950s.
Director Andrew Patterson can’t resist showing off. A bravura sequence finds the camera hurtling across the night, from the inside of Fay’s switchboard office, through a basketball game at the high school, and to the radio station where Everett broods while programming sleepy-time radio. Also thanks to cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz, the movie turns downright frightening toward the end, as Patterson induces bursts of quick takes intercut with panicked screams and black silence. What the hell is going on here? When “The Vast of Night” finally shows all its cards in the last act, it’s disappointing given the mystery humming through the rest of the movie, all pointing toward an invisible menace.
The “Paradox Theater” conceit — that this is all a late-night, social tale of the kind that Rod Serling once dispatched via the airwaves of American television — threatens to make the whole affair feel silly and ephemeral, but Patterson’s confident craft and obvious cinema savvy elevate “The Vast of Night” to something that feels far, far from a first indie feature. Writers Craig W. Sanger and James Montague also imbue Everett and Fay with a buoyant chemistry straight out of a Hollywood rom-com, but assuredly insert that dynamic into a creepy sci-fi framework. None of this would work without Horowitz and McCormick’s performances, which already feel iconic.
While the film offers a familiar B-movie story, it does so with heart and genuine sincerity, never striving for irony and to put anything in quotation marks. It’s that earnestness that makes “The Vast of Night” so appealing. It’s a clever exercise in no-frills science fiction that should please fans of the genre, but it’s more than just a sci-fi exercise thanks to a script that prioritizes, and cares about, its characters.
“The Vast of Night” will be available to stream on Amazon beginning Friday, May 29.