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The Vast of Night

In a twilight zone one step beyond the outer limits of motion picture production, there is a distant land without major studios or A-list directors, where film budgets have no more than six digits to the left of the decimal point. Travelers to this land experience a close encounter with some of the best filmmaking ever seen. There's a signpost up ahead. You have just entered... The Vast of Night.

The Vast of Night is the first feature film project undertaken by Andrew Patterson, its director and co-writer. Prior to this, Mr. Patterson's only experience with film and television production came from directing and producing local TV commercials and promotional videos for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Filmed in the fall of 2016 in Whitney, Texas, The Vast of Night premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January of 2019. Amazon Studios acquired the distribution rights and released it in drive-ins and on Amazon Prime in May of 2020.

The total production cost for The Vast of Night was $700,000. To put that number in perspective, $700,000 is a mere one percent of the budget for Ocean's 8, which was in production around the same time. It's one half of one percent of the budget for the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick. For a summer blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame or The Force Awakens, $700,000 is probably less than the petty cash account. You could make twenty Vasts of Night for the price of one final-season episode of Game of Thrones.

In terms of entertainment and artistic value, The Vast of Night is at least as good as any of those, and better than most anything else you'll see.

The Vast of Night is presented as if it were an episode of an old TV anthology series whose opening narration is a straight-up homage to The Twilight Zone, read by the best Rod Serling imitator you will ever hear.

You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten; a slipstream caught between channels; a secret museum of mankind; the private library of shadows; all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth... you are entering Paradox Theater.

"Number please."
The story itself takes place in Cayuga, New Mexico, one of those small towns where everybody knows everybody else, some time in 1958. The high school basketball team has its big rivalry game tonight against Pocasset, and everybody in town will be at the gymnasium to watch.

Well, almost everybody. 16-year old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a naïve and nerdy "science girl" being raised by a single mother, will be operating the town's manual service telephone exchange. A few blocks away at the radio station, disc jockey Everett "the Maverick" Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a charismatic fast talker from the big city with a bottomless supply of snappy one-liners ("What's the tale, nightingale?" "C'mon, razz my berries") will be broadcasting his "Highway Hits" evening program to an estimated audience of five or ten people.

For the first eighteen minutes, we follow Everett around the high school and its environs as he is consulted about some electrical problems at the school, checks in with his co-workers who are recording the play-by-play of the basketball game for later broadcast, meets up with Fay, and walks her to the phone company before heading for the radio station. Fay is excitedly showing off her new battery-powered tape recorder, and she and Everett use it to conduct a series of mock interviews with the people arriving for the basketball game. This sequence serves to establish Fay and Everett as real people living in a real town inhabited by other real people.

Shortly after coming on duty at the phone company, Fay discovers a strange static-y sound that's jamming some of the phone lines, then gets a panicked call from a woman who claims "there's a large object holding over my land..." As all this is going on, Everett's radio program is repeatedly interrupted by a burst of the same sound. Fay calls the radio station and plays the sound for Everett, who is just as puzzled as she is. He puts it on the air – he figures "It's good radio" – asking anyone who might know what it is to call the radio station.

A military veteran named Billy (Bruce Davis) calls in a few minutes later, and tells of being detailed to work on secret projects in isolated places involving strange objects that made the same sound. As Fay and Everett work to track down the "something in the sky," they meet a reclusive old lady named Mabel (Gail Cronauer) who tells them that this isn't the first time that there's been "something in the sky" above Cayuga.

"Ever since I was a little girl, they've liked this place. They always have."

What we have here is your basic alien-visitors-to-a-small-town B-movie, but this is a B-movie done with an A-movie level of craftsmanship. The Vast of Night makes use of some impressive long takes, including a shot that starts at the phone company, goes down the street to the gymnasium, through the middle of the basketball game, out the windows above the bleachers, and across town to the radio station. The cinematography by Miguel Littin-Menz is the equal of what you'd see in films with much bigger budgets. The score by Erick Alexander and Jerald Bulmer is darkly atmospheric and just ominous enough. The dialogue is realistic, with people sometimes talking over each other as people do in real life when they're stressed. The acting is excellent throughout, from the lead actors all the way down to the smallest bit part. If this is what passes for "low budget," I can't wait to see what Andrew Patterson would be capable of if he had several million or more to work with.

Also heard on the phone line

The Vast of Night contains a whole basket's worth of Easter eggs referencing classic science fiction. The town of Cayuga is named after Cayuga Productions, the company Rod Serling formed to make The Twilight Zone. The radio station's call letters are WOTW, short for War of the Worlds. A couple of characters mention a nearby town, Santa Mira; that's the name of the fictional town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. One minor character is named Renny, after actor Michael Rennie, who played the alien Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. Another is named Susan Oliver, after the actress who played Vina in the original Star Trek pilot "The Cage." I'm sure there are one or two more in there that I didn't pick up on.

I spotted two other "eggs" that refer to places where paranormal things are said to have happened. One character mentions the town of Hobbs, New Mexico, location of a UFO sighting in 1967. The name of the visiting team, Pocasset, may be a reference to the "Cursed Forest" near the town of that name in Massachusetts that was once the home of the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe.

Based on the references some characters make to real locations in New Mexico, Cayuga is somewhere southwest of Alomogordo, site of the first atomic bomb test and the legendary Area 51.

In the first part of the film, Everett steals Renny's trombone and hides it. He explains to Fay that he's doing that because "he needs to be punished for being Renny." Exactly why is left to our imaginations.

"One time a squirrel bit through the wires." This is a running gag for the first 20 minutes or so.

At one point, Fay mentions that she doesn't have a father. It's subtly implied that her baby sister Maddie is really a half-sister. A single mother with multiple partners would have been looked down upon at that time in a way we don't do today. While the townspeople probably don't approve of her mother's lifestyle, they don't project that disapproval onto Fay. She isn't an outcast by any means, but she's certainly an outlier. Everett "the Maverick" is also an outlier, since he's not from Cayuga and doesn't plan on sticking around permanently. It's no surprise that the two outliers end up as friends.

The basketball teams wear period-correct uniforms, and the markings on the basketball court are also correct: narrow key, no 3-point arc.

The attention to detail extends to the telephone system: the film crew tracked down a vintage plugboard exchange and found some retired operators who taught Sierra McCormick how it works.

Both Billy and Mable do nothing more than tell stories, but their story-telling is mesmerizing, and by the end of Mabel's scene, the goosebumps are out in force. The interaction between Billy and Everett is especially impressive because they filmed the scene before Bruce Davis was cast, meaning that Jake Horowitz was playing against someone else off camera reading from the script.

One of the cars in the high school parking lot is a Cord 810, an early front-wheel drive car produced from 1935 to 1937 that is widely considered one of the most beautiful automobiles ever built.

Mabel tells a story about the mysterious disappearance of passengers from a train which could be the premise for a pretty good prequel, if Mr. Patterson is so inclined as to make one.

Conclusion

You've seen stories like this before, but you've never seen one that is, written, filmed, and acted so magnificently. The fact that it was produced for less money than some film budgets devote to craft services just makes it all the more impressive. Four out of four unexplained noises.

There are those who would claim that most of what Baby M says can be characterized as "unexplained noises."

1 comment:

milostanfield said...

I think I've watched this thing maybe 10 times and counting. It's now a ritual. Thank you thank you for the easter eggs. An excuse to watch it again!

That shot! I get hysterical by the time it ends. You'd probably have to go back to the opening shot of "Touch Of Evil" to find a better long tracking shot. TOE's shot has incredible audio that Vast's shot doesn't, but the near silence of the tracking makes Vast's appropriately eerie. I love how it started with Fay and finally found it's way to Everett. Whoever wrangled that drone should get their own award.

I think that shot was the "alien" POV, as was the view through old CRT TVs. This may be a bit too meta, but I think it was meant to conflate us, the audience, with the "aliens". Part of Mabel's story blatantly describes the worst aspects of the internet today.

Sierra McCormick was wonderful in this. The whole cast had how people behave in the 50's down cold, but Sierra's Fay was perfect. I hope she has a long successful career.

Sometimes I quibble about the ending but it was ambiguous enough to hold the door open for a sequel. Maybe.