Published on June 11th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie1
Vast of Night
There’s this new sci-fi indie flick that’s getting quite the buzz after debuting strongly on Amazon Prime. Vast of Night is low-key but it’s definitely worth the hype.
How does one qualify their low budget indie film? This has been a question as old as the indie film itself—this idea of how do you get your audience to see a substance in that which does not have the highest production value or is limited narratively to what it can feasibly show? Vast of Night, the latest micro-budget indie to find a life on streaming (it’s available on Amazon Prime) finds a clever solution to this conundrum: nostalgia. It contextualizes its quaint little sci-fi pot boiler within a fake Twilight Zone anthology program. It plays as just another in a line of kitschy TV movies; the film opens with the camera slowly zooming into an old 1950’s boob tube as it flickers its way into “Paradox Theatre.”
However, as the film finds its color and settles into its 2019 cinematography, the film takes on a peculiar storytelling form–one that is far from typical of a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. It opens on Everett (an impressive Jake Horowitz), a fast-talking whippersnapper who DJs the local radio station in Cayuga, New Mexico. He pals around with curious, sixteen-year-old Fay (Sierra McCormick), showing her how to operate her fancy new gadget (it’s a now primitive-looking tape recorder).
The film settles into a truly peculiar narrative tempo in its first act. It really leans into our two main characters’ very unremarkable banter as they walk from the local high school to the switchboard where Fay is supposed to work that fateful evening. The first twenty minutes of the film is comprised of their charming and rather chaste chemistry as they babble on about tape recorders and scientific experiments they have read in magazines. Everett takes on this big brother role, whereas Fay is characterized as doughy-eyed but savvy. They kind of just hang out for a while so we can see this dynamic at play. It’s a highly unusual slow-start to a film of Vast of Night’s ilk. But it works because it not only makes you like the characters, but it makes you thoroughly understand their place in the world—the 1950s, small town bubble of both curiosity and naivety. That, above all else, is essential to getting behind the film’s slow-burning, UFO campfire story.
So Fay hears some strange noises on her switchboard and asks Everett to broadcast them out on the radio. Soon after, an old man calls in with an unsettling story about his experience in the military working on a secret project from which those sounds came. Director Andrew Patterson smartly glues us to the intensity of the old man’s story, resisting that age old “film is life with the boring parts cut out” mantra. He keeps the so-called “boring parts” intact, and slowly but surely makes you feel the dread of a good drawn-out story. Everett and Fay’s curiosity is sparked, and they spend the rest of the night chasing leads on this strange sound that has various members of the town calling in and reporting to have heard.
Again, the film’s lack of a budget really shows. But only in a way that makes the film charming and indelible. It not only takes advantage of the tools it does have at its disposal, but it really finds inspiration in those tools. The film is gripping because it captures the nuances of small town America–the kind of boxed-in epistemology of a place like that, which breeds a desperate and dangerous form of curiosity. In an almost Spielbergian sense, the film plays with a nostalgia-heavy aesthetic and really revels in its ability to bring to life the atmosphere of a time and a place in the past.
But just as much as it is wistful, it is also unnerving. The form of investigation the kids take to unravel this mystery of sounds from above is mostly interviews. These kinds of long form, monologue-based scenes are really difficult to make work in any visual medium, let alone a sci-fi/horror flick. Patterson very skillfully amplifies the atmosphere of dread that comes from oral storytelling. He trusts his actors and actresses to carry very weighty material, to allow the old-school spookiness to come through. He really doesn’t flex with his camera much at all. He simply allows that atmosphere to build by way of our intimate alignment with Fay and Everett’s wide-eyed curiosity (and some well-crafted sound effects).
There comes a point towards the end where the film has to put up or shut up. And unfortunately, it doesn’t quite stick its landing in terms of viscerally following through with the dread it had previously conjured. It just doesn’t quite have the means to. Nevertheless, the film is nothing short of spellbinding for a low-budget indie like this. It epitomizes the age-old maxim, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” This movie finds a fresh and gripping approach through its lack of resources.
And it’s relatively meager undertaking also allows interesting sub-textual themes to resonate—things like American paranoia, governmental duplicitousness, racism, and stigmas of mental illness. All these dimensions are felt in satisfying measure because the film doesn’t bog itself down in flashy special effects and gimmicky jump scares. It makes the simple very complex. The contextualization as an episode of “Paradox Theatre” gives it a clever boost of pastiche. And its unconventional narrative in conjunction with that context allows it to really shine as something kind of uncanny and sinister. For a film so simple, it really earns your attention.
Vast of Night is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Check out the trailer below.