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Review: The Vast of Night – “Works beautifully as a tribute to the magical and menacing sci-fi of the late 50s and early 60s”

The Vast Of Night is a science fiction thriller from first time writer and director, Andrew Patterson. Starring Stella McCormick as Fay Crocker, a high school student fascinated with all things science and science fiction, and Jake Horowitz as Everett Sloan, the fast-talking local radio DJ. Set in the fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico during the late 1950s, the film follows the story of Fay and Everett through the course of one night as they discover and investigate a mysterious radio signal that could have dire consequences for them and the town.

The first shot of the film places the story within the realm of a fictional TV show called ‘Paradox Theatre’ by way of an homage to the much loved Rod Serling produced mystery sci-fi show, The Twilight Zone. Indeed, the whole film is a love letter to late 50s early 60s science fiction and in particularly The Twilight Zone. The name Cayuga, the town in which takes place is taken from the name of Serling’s production company responsible for the show and the name of the radio station in the film, WOTW is a nod to the sci-fi classic, War Of The Worlds. There are sure to be many more to the more keen-eyed sci-fi fans.

The opening sequence is a series of intriguing tracking shots following the charismatic, quick-talking Everett, the local radio DJ into and through the Cayuga High School gymnasium, where the school basketball team, band and cheerleaders are warming up for an important game. The whole town is gathering for the event, with an air of anticipation and excitement thick in the air. This is small-town America that still feels naïve and innocent. It is yet unchanged and awakened by the civil rights movement, the horrors of Vietnam or the baby boomer generation coming of age with free love. Rock and roll is still bubble-gum, Wurlitzer jukeboxes and Brylcreem. If indeed that America ever existed.

We are then introduced to Fay Crocker as she shows Everett her brand new tape recorder and we follow them back out of the gym, away from the noise and excitement, into the relative stillness of the night. They happen upon people to interview on Fay’s recorder on their way to the local telephone exchange, where Fay works part-time as a switchboard operator. It is a time of analogue communication, where all telephone contact required calling switchboard operators who would ask you for the number required and they would plug you into the correct junction. It’s a world away from tiny TVs and phones where you could reach anyone, anywhere at any time. The idea of such technology is even scoffed at by Everett as Fay at one point describes with giddy excitement, predictions made in the ‘science books’ she reads.

It is a film all about contrasts. The brightly lit, densely populated high school gymnasium has left the town an abandoned, dark and silent void. The low-level street lights serve to remind us of the dark night sky pushing down onto everything, with untold threat lurking above within the cover of night. Our two protagonists move quickly when they are outside, exposed to the night, as does the camera, which sprints from one location to another in an exciting sequence that serves to heighten the sense of fear of the unknown above and reinforce the distance between one safe haven to another in the town. It was only on my second viewing of the film that this sequence worked, on the first watch I found the camera work removed me somewhat from the action, but on the second time around I found it had the opposite effect and drew me further into the story.

But it is when the movement stops and the camera remains unflinching in close-ups on Everett and Fay in particular, that the film comes alive. It becomes all about the intimacy and intrusive nature of sound. We hear what Fay hears through her switchboard headphones, the sound of people crying in fear or the mysterious pulsing sound that could be the cause of everything is right there next to Fay and us. It’s inside our head.

For all of the inventive cinematography on show, it is the performances from the film’s two stars that really drive The Vast Of Night forward. Jake Horowitz brings a great deal of charm to Everett, the local DJ with big ambitions of getting out of Cayuga to make a name for himself on the west coast. But the film is very much carried by Sierra McCormick who plays Fay Crocker, capturing the wide-eyed innocence and energy of America at that time. During the long and unblinking close-up scenes her performance is intense and compact, only to explode with huge energy when outside in long shots as she prowls and sprints through the streets with huge energy. The relationship between the two characters develops beautifully throughout the course of the film and never feels forced or contrived. We are sure to see them in the future. But it is a performance from McCormick that should generate much well-earned interest in her from other filmmakers. We are sure to be seeing more from her.

The two stars are amply supported by a small and talented supporting cast with two brief but notable performances from Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis that add weight to the looming sense of dread and paranoia.

If there is one criticism of an otherwise captivating and inventive film, it is that the climax of the story reveals too much, where (without giving anything away) sometimes showing less can prove to be more effective and menacing than full disclosure. Jaws would not be the classic it is today if ‘Bruce The Shark’ had worked to any degree and Spielberg didn’t have to become so inventive to create all of the suspense and tension that makes it spark off the screen and continues to thrill audiences now.

That said, the film works beautifully as a tribute to the magical and menacing science fiction of the late 50s and early 60s, capturing a sense of surface innocence that harbours an underlying fear and paranoia of all things alien to the American dream and way of life.

The Vast Of Night is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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