If you ever watched Game of Thrones, and it seems at one point the entire universe did and then some, you may remember that the Red Priestess, Melisandre, made reference as part of some ritualised chanting, to the fact that “The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors”.
It was followed, in some sign of religious hope and optimism, the more uplifting phrase, “the day bright and beautiful and full of hope”, but the truth remains that the night can be a dark and terrifying place.
It can also be, as 1950s-set The Vast of Night makes abundantly and beguilingly clear, full of wonder and mystery, a place where the unnerving and the unknown can also become the exciting and the intriguing.
For much of the film’s early running time, it’s mystery and intrigue that rules the night as cool nighttime radio show host Everett (Jake Horowitz) and budding sound engineer Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who spend the early part of the evening testing out Fay’s new recording device as they walk from the big basketball game that almost everyone in the small New Mexican town of Cayuga is going to.
Everett and Fay have, rather fatefully as it turns out, other places to be, the former at WOTW radio to broadcast his show, he jokes, given the fact that the game has taken all the attention in town for that one night, to five people, and the latter at the telephone exchange where calls have to be manually transferred by an operator.
It is, save for the animated conversation initiated by Fay (Everett is far more circumspect and well, cool) who reads science fiction and science digests and foresees a future world of cross-continental vacuum-tube trains, self-drive cars and mobile phones (by the year 2000, no less!) – Everett, rather hilariously, buys the first two possibilities as likely while dismissing small portable phones as impossible – just another night.
Being small town residents, albeit ones who want to escape as soon as they can, they don’t really expect much deviation from the normal course of things which is why, when Fay hears a mysterious signal via the switchboard, she sits up and takes notice, especially when calls start cutting out and people call in citing bright unknown objects in the sky, frightening enough for them to seek shelter in their cellars.
Framed as an episode of Twilight Zone-style anthology television series known as Paradox Theatre, with the film switching from full-screen colour to TV screen-sized black and white to visually emphasise that you are seeing something fictional that might just be real, The Vast of Night quickly becomes a brilliantly well-imagined chase through the terrors and possible wonders of the night.
Deftly managing to build tension without revealing too much too early or too little too late, the film is a master class in how to take one weird moment and craft a compelling and damn near impossible to look away from tale that spends a great deal of its time suggesting that the ever-escalating series of events could be life-changing or possibly nothing at all.
After all, sixteen-year-old Fay and not much older Everett are both eager to escape their stultifying small town environs so the temptation to make the sound point to something truly significant is high.
But for different reasons, Fay and Everett stay removed from the unfolding events, unsure whether the sounds are a blip in the night or the sign of something far darker and far more menacing such as, they conject, a possible Soviet invasion.
As mysterious calls into the station from an army veteran only known as Billy (Bruce Davis) and a urgent summoning by town resident, elderly Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), and strange goings-on in a town known for its predictability and not much else, build upon the other, Fay begins to get frightened while Everett does his best to stay removed from what it could all mean, seeing the entire episode as nothing more than “good radio”.
Through the ever goosebump-inducing narrative, the most compelling thing, quite apart from What It Could All Mean, is the way in which Everett and Fay draw closer and closer, the sceptic and the imagineer, the coolly removed and the loquaciously all in with no hesitation, coming together in a delightful character study that adds real weight to the low-budget, high-concept story.
A directorial debut for Andrew Patterson which debuted at 2019’s Slamdance Film Festival (remember them?), The Vast of Night is testament to the primacy of story and character over big-budget CGI.
Made by all accounts on a shoestring budget, the film evinces little of this in ts execution, save for cut-aways when other better-budgeted films might have gone for the full, dramatic reveal, because it knows that what we are here for is to watch two very different but closely connected young people grapple with the state of their lives, their hopes for the future (of themselves and humanity as a whole) and to find answers to the biggest mystery to hit the town in years.
While there is a dramatic payoff in the finale, which not only provides answers (well, mostly) but does so in the visually poetic and imaginatively creative style that characterises the film as a whole, what keeps the story percolating along and keeps you rapt through ever slowly ever more tense 90 minutes of the just-the-right-length film is how the mystery is affecting our two main characters.
Don’t forget, pretty much everyone else is at the game, all of whom for the most part show little interest in pushing beyond the borders of life as they know it, and the unraveling of the grand conspiracy of strange sounds and unnerving goings-on, falls wholly to our intrepid twosome, who increasingly have to balance a need to know with an alarming premonition that they might not like the answer they find.
A detective game par excellence, The Vast of Night is stunningly told, visually (the tracking shots through the town alone are worth firing up Amazon Prime) and narratively, a homage to 1950s sci-fi that makes captivating use of menace and intrigue, curiosity and foreboding to tell an utterly engrossing tale full of mystery, wonder and darkness, enrapturingly clever storytelling that foretells a bright and vibrant future for Patterson.