Synopsis: In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator and charismatic radio DJ discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.
Stars: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer
Director: Andrew Patterson
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: With all the technology, ease-of-access, and overwhelming intrusions we have in our daily lives, it can be easy to wistfully wish we lived in a more simple time. Maybe it’s back in the 80s when music was more fun and movies were just…better. Or how about the 70s when gas was cheap and we could invest in the big ideas of tomorrow? You could go to the 60s if you wanted to witness a true time of change and advancement…the list goes on. Yet to do that you’d also have to take all the bad things that existed then as well. For a boatload of cultural reasons I can’t even get into here, while the 50s were a grand time for film and television I would never want to return to that period of history.
In the late 50s and early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were popular with television audiences and each week offered up a new story of the strange and unusual. Oft-imitated over the years but never truly matched, these shows pushed the boundaries for storytelling in a smaller medium and have had great staying power over the years that followed. Watching them now, they may seem quaint by today’s standards but it doesn’t diminish their overall impact and originality. Inviting you in for tales of unexplained phenomena, it inspired generations of filmgoers.
You can clearly see that screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger have spent some time thinking about these shows because their new movie The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the home-spun tales of an era long-since passed. Instead of feeling reverential to an old formula, however, director Andrew Patterson uses the film’s limited budget to his advantage and creates an unusual and entertaining little marvel. Employing a clever opening device to suggest this might be just another episode of an on-going anthology, The Vast of Night takes its time to settle in but once it grabs you it doesn’t let go.
Charismatic teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is helping set-up for his small town’s big Friday night event: the high-school basketball game. In the first of several long tracking shots Patterson uses effectively, Everett winds his way through the gymnasium fixing sound equipment, benignly tormenting a friend in the band, and making sure he can leave for his nighttime job as the town’s radio host/DJ with all systems go. He’s soon snagged by the younger Fay (Sierra McCormick) who has a new sound recorder she’d like some help with, a perfect way to maybe get close to a boy she has a secret crush on. She’s also on her way to work as the switchboard operator so Everett escorts her and the two discuss life in the town and plans for the future.
The talky first half hour or so of the movie may put off viewers coming to the film looking for immediate results but I’d urge you to stick with it. I found myself shifting a bit in my seat, too, but establishing these characters proves valuable later when Fay overhears a strange noise through her switchboard and contact with the neighboring towns is cut off. Enlisting Everett’s help and his listeners, the two are eventually led down an increasingly dangerous path that has roots in the town’s history. As the truth is uncovered and an impossible explanation starts to form, the two teenagers will be faced with saving their town from an unnamed entity.
I could easily see The Vast of Night having been adapted from a radio play (ala War of the Worlds) from back in the day. With it’s long stretches of dialogue and specific sound design, the movie feels more tuned to your aural senses than your visual senses at times. There are moments when closing your eyes and just listening give you the feeling you are more in the scene. While it’s light on what most would deem “scares” this has a handful of admirable “thrills” to it, scenes that will send that shiver ripple up your spine and make you bring the blanket further up over your nose. Knowing this was the first time effort from the director and screenwriters, it’s an impressive debut.
The two leads are appealing and I felt they could have popped out of the time period, particularly McCormick with her gangly gait and cat-eye glasses. Horowitz also nicely avoids the pull to play his character as a smart-aleck know-it-all…even though that’s kind of what he is. We have to like these two and it’s pretty much right from the beginning we are on their side and along for the ride. While the majority of the supporting cast is either heard through the switchboard/radio or seen in brief, Gail Cronauer has a memorable scene as a townswoman Everett and Fay visit who may have answers to what is occurring this dark night.
In some parts of the country I know that The Vast of Night is playing at drive-ins and I would love to have seen it on a big screen like that when it was good and dark. At a trim 89 minutes the film zips along and is best enjoyed all in one bite, resist the urge to take breaks because this one is all about the momentum that is built up. Especially after the first half hour when our heroine and hero get to work, you’ll want to buckle in for their nighttime adventure.