You know what I love? The Twilight Zone. From 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling captivated the world with highly intelligent, hair-raising tales of encounters with the supernatural and extraterrestrial phenomena, often with a badass twist at the end supplemented by an important life lesson. While often daunting and eerie, the series always retained a certain class, never once slipping into bad taste or outright B-movie hamminess (well, rarely the latter) and immortalising a rather quaint portrait of Americana and Serling’s bright-minded attacks on certain political, social and cultural ills embedded within American society. In his debut feature The Vast Of Night, director Andrew Patterson has deftly tipped his hat to that show and also Cold War-era sci-fi/horror/mystery classics in general, transporting us back to 1950s small-town America and also framing the story as an episode of the fictional Paradox Theatre, an anthology TV series in the vein of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Thankfully, he’s created something worthwhile.
One night, in some annum during the 50s in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, the majority of the residents are in attendance at the local high school championship basketball game. Teenage radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) is popular, charismatic and witty, well-liked by most townspeople and never failing to catch the eye of the ladies. He treads the line between alluring confidence and arrogant douchebaggery with precision, and one Cayuga native who is entranced by his attractive, quick-witted insouciance is Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). 16 years of age, Fay is a bookish and personable switchboard operator, and her geeky, nervous enthusiasm is something Everett is entertained by and reserves a modicum of affection for.
In their respective commercial chambers during the early part of the evening, Everett is happily playing the cerebral bad-boy disc jockey (his antics include staging a competition where the winner will receive a piece of Elvis Presley’s carpet, which may or may not have actually belonged to Elvis) as Fay diligently swaps and inserts her phone plugs for the neverending barrage of Cayugans trying to reach one another. As she connects another call, Fay hears something odd. An unfamiliar, creepy audio frequency keeps showing up, and many of the other locals are starting to hear it as well, understandably freaking them out. Rushing over to Everett’s radio station, the duo begin an investigation that will incorporate mysterious Samaritans and governmental conspiracy theories not unlike Area 51 and the Roswell incident.
The performances are superb in this one. Horowitz is highly likeable and amusing as Everett, his pithy humour, chain-smoking and melodic Southern drawl constituting a pitch-perfect anachronism that manages to always stay elevated above the line of caricature. He and McCormick’s Fay engineer wonderful chemistry, her obsessive and ebullient nerdiness being cute and inviting of Everett’s playful teasing but never his derision. Their relationship is ambiguous in terms of anything extending beyond the platonic, but it nevertheless fosters an engaging intimacy that makes you fearful for them as the weirdness and tension increasingly mount.
While every facet of the film is essentially spot-on, with gripping direction and cinematography and a sharp script, there is an unfortunate tendency to push the term ‘slow burn’ to an extreme definitional conclusion, some sequences outstaying their welcome when they could have easily wrapped up a minute or two minutes before they actually do. I wouldn’t say that the work suffers overall because of these instances, but I believe a little patience is due here and there, and I can’t say I’m ultimately surprised as Patterson is obviously still finding his feet as a filmmaker. Every scene unequivocally works, but some are more concise than others, and it’s peculiar how Patterson seems to know exactly when to cut one particular moment while appearing a little clumsy with narrative development in the next. A minor gripe, it certainly hasn’t thrown me off revisiting it at some point.
Overall, it’s a tightly executed, clever and highly endearing film, one where the principal characters are very easy to care for and an elusive sense of menace constantly hangs in the air, impressively balanced so that neither the dread or warm fuzziness undermines the other. Horowitz and McCormick are two great performers, and I very much look forward to seeing whatever project finds its way into their crosshairs next, the same goes for Patterson as he has some demonstrably robust directorial chops on him. If you enjoy science fiction and brilliantly acted, character-driven mysteries, The Vast Of Night is an utterly worthwhile addition, a picture that will make you smile and tap into any inquisitiveness you have about life outside Earth’s remits. It’s the kind of pleasant and intelligent cinema that should be seeing wholesale production and release at the general level, not merely during this tiresome lockdown. Go and check this one out.