“You’re entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. A slip stream cut between channels. The 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.”
That’s the signpost up ahead… Paradox Theatre. Tonight’s episode, “The Vast of Night”. This Rod Serling-esque narration is just the beginning of a nostalgic trip into The Twilight Zone. That place where the ordinary is confronted with the extraordinary, where an other-worldly intervention reveals the best and the worst of humanity. In The Vast of Night, first-time director Andrew Patterson (who also co-writes, under the pseudonym James Montague, with Craig W Sanger) takes the audience through the screen of antique television set back to a 1950s small town in New Mexico. Strange sounds stirring from the radio and telephone trouble leads switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and local DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) to investigate. It does not take long for reports of something in the sky to follow. Sounds familiar does it not.
Yet, unlike similar stories, the strength of Patterson’s debut comes from the constraints of a low budget which give the audience a new perspective on this canonical genre formula. It encourages something much closer to the classics of 1950/60s small-screen sci-fi than anything found in the contemporary multiplex. Rather than a CGI-dominated bore-fest depicting mass devastation for the umpteenth time, this is a conversation driven film which reminds us about the delights of suspense over spectacle. Long-takes linger on screen. Lengthy sequences come from characters simply relaying their own stories and theories about what has descended upon the town. It is the same low-scale, high-concept strategy that made timeless classics of shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It also worked for M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, which took the alien invasion story and grounded it within the struggles of a grieving family.
The Vast Of Night‘s budgetary constraints are ultimately to its benefit. As the film can’t fall back on whizz-bang spectacle, it instead has to rely on the old-fashioned fundamentals of cinematic language to provide immersion and tension. Rather than covered from multiple angles then cobbled together in the edit, even incidental scenes are skillfully and deliberately directed, Patterson repeatedly employing startling tracking shots and tense long-takes. The opening continuous shot depicting a basketball game struck me as the equal, in technical virtuosity, of such whirling-dervish long-take spectacles as Goodfellas‘ iconic Copacabana shot, the housing projects escape in the first of season of True Detective, or the opening to Spectre – all the more impressive for being executed with a fraction of the resources available to those productions. More than merely a display of dazzling technique, this technique helps Patterson establish the intimate small-town geography. Within a single shot, the camera leaves Fay at the switchboard, speeds through the empty streets, and arrives at the WOTW radio station via the bustling basketball game. This is simple and efficient but highly effective film-making of the kind too often forgotten in bigger budget examples of the genre.
Free from noisy and repetitive action set-pieces, the story remains compelling because of the central characters’ relationship. The aforementioned opening tracking shots follow the protagonists on the way to their night shifts. As they play with Fay’s new audio recorder, we soon understand both her and Everett – he is the cocky local radio star and she is nervous but highly competent and looking for bigger things in the city. Enhancing their performances is the pleasingly retro vibe of their dialogue. Their snappy back-and-forth dynamic recalls the rapid-fire interplay of Howard Hawks’ classics, with 1951’s The Thing from Another World a particularly clear reference point. The conversations are shot through with smart, witty period detail, from clever predictions about “future” technology to Everett’s fear that the disturbances could be a precursor to Communist invasion (recalling the subtext of Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers).
Thanks to these grounded, human performances, the suspense is potent, quickly taking hold, because we care about these people, their relationship, and their goals. Once they begin to investigate, the tension builds, and the story takes on an X-Files-meets-Scooby Doo quality as the meddling duo collect their clues. It is here that the screenplay could have done with some expansion to make certain developments flow more organically. After hearing only two stories, Fay and Everett become fully convinced of an extra-terrestrial explanation, and as a result of such rushed plotting, the ending lands rather abruptly. However, it is a testament to this conversation driven story that I was left wanting more of what it had offered.
Here one also finds an urgent political subtext to The Vast Of Night – one that lends an edge to its choice of period and setting beyond genre nostalgia, and a resonance to the piece beyond mere pastiche. While the townsfolk are being entertained by a basketball game, the answers to the mystery are found from society’s marginalised (an African-American veteran and an older widow); a Lynchian juxtaposition of an idyllic small town surface and the violence and exploitation hidden below. When asked by our main characters why their stories have not been told, they both reply, “who would believe us.” In fact, the soldier says that African-American troops were selected for a secret mission specifically because their claims could be dismissed by the authorities. The point is not pushed but it is still an interesting commentary on what lies under society’s surface and whose experiences go unheard.
Financial limitations aside, this was a most impressive first feature and I keenly await another episode of Paradox Theatre. Hopefully the direct can offer another retro return to the smaller-scale stories which bring a level of suspense not often found in modern mainstream cinema.