The best episodes of The Twilight Zone weren’t the ones with the zaniest concepts or unbelievable stories. They were the episodes that focused on the humans amidst the chaos like the classic “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” The Vast of Night realizes this, focusing the action not on little green creatures from outer space but two teenagers as it slowly dawns on them what must be happening to their sleepy little town. From inventive camera moves to the excellent lead performances, this film is sure to be an instant cult classic that practically begs to be seen at a drive-in theater. With The Vast of Night, director Andrew Patterson has created a thrilling, fresh take on The Twilight Zone‘s format while announcing his arrival as a filmmaker to watch.
The Vast of Night draws viewers in from the first scene, which takes place in a 1950s high school gym. After some narration informing us we are watching an episode of The Paradox Theater (a framing device that lovingly plagiarizes The Twilight Zone), we meet Everett (Jake Horowitz), a high school radio DJ. He is busy getting equipment ready to record the big basketball game happening that night. From the old fashioned teen slang to the production design, the film cares enough to get the world of these characters right. It also doesn’t slow down, with the opening sequences edited as one long take and nearly non-stop dialogue between characters. As Everett makes his way to the outside, fellow student Fay (Sierra McCormick) rushes to talk to him. She’s just bought a new tape recorder on his recommendation, and they spend time pretending to interview various students outside the gym, joking as they both walk to their respective jobs. It’s a sequence with an air of foreboding. These wholesome kids are lit almost entirely in darkness, with vast sections of frame empty. The combination has you waiting for a monster to jump from the shadows and attack.
But the monsters, if there are any, stay well hidden. As Everett starts his shift hosting a local radio show for WOTW (a nice nod to The War of the Worlds), Fay starts her work as the local switchboard operator directing calls while listening to Everett’s show. But soon, her night goes from uneventful to unsettling as a mysterious static noise begins to take over her headset. In a nine-minute, unbroken take (McCormick is brilliant throughout), Fay slowly begins to panic as the phone cuts out on her during calls, and the lights begin to flicker. She calls Everett for help after noticing strange disturbances on other calls, and suddenly the two friends find themselves at the center of … something. Is it the military testing something mysterious? Could the Soviets be invading? And more importantly – what can Everett and Fay do about it?
Patterson chooses not to show us just what is going on on the other side of town, and it’s this choice that gives The Vast of Night its strength. The film happens essentially in real-time, with the fluid camera movements propelling the story forward just as much as the spoken words. We are with Everett and Fay because we have no other option. We hang on their every word and scour the frame for clues as we know exactly as much as they do. When Fay holds her headset closer to catch the frantic words of a caller seeking help or when Everett silently listens to a man with an unbelievable explanation for the evening’s events, you are leaning forward in your seat, right there with them.
Part of this power is through the eerie score and truly stunning cinematography, but much of it is due to Horowitz and McCormick. Both actors have excellent chemistry with each other, and each makes character choices that make Everett and Fay feel real despite their 1950s trappings. They’re regular, nerdy teenagers dealing with a situation far above their pay grade. Horowitz and McCormick keep your attention on what the mysterious incident means for Everett and Fay rather than what it means for the world at large. From start to finish, you care what happens to them.
Like an excellent Twilight Zone episode, I was left thinking about the film for the rest of the day after watching it for the first time. The fact that The Vast of Night is a debut feature by an unknown director with a laughably small budget turned down by eighteen film festivals only adds to my admiration for it. It proves you don’t need a big budget or a well-known name to create a classic sci-fi film. You just need believable characters, a willingness to subvert genre expectations, and faith in your audience. The Vast of Night is a smart film that pays tribute to the past while setting up for the future, announcing Andrew Patterson as the next big thing in film.
The Vast of Night is available now on Amazon Video (free with Prime Subscription.) Check out the trailer below!