Although I never wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, for some reason I always feel oddly nostalgic watching movies or shows with children of the 1950s and 60s who are obsessed with exploring the galaxy. I was born a bit after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, but it’s as if I’ve been permeated with a collective vision of that era of American childhood to the point where I imagine I can feel the ghost of the wonder that the vastness of space and what might be out there inspired before anyone had really seen it up close. Perhaps some of it can be traced to reading old issues of the pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, with their B-movie-style cover illustrations of spaceships and aliens, or all the times I creeped myself out watching reruns of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) in the basement TV room in the dark. Maybe it’s because I so often feel like an alien in this world myself. Whatever the root of that connection is, director Andrew Patterson’s debut film, The Vast of Night (2019), about eerie goings on in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s taps right into it.
Right off the bat it’s positioned like an episode of The Twilight Zone with the camera zooming in on, and then directly into, a black and white tv set showing ”Paradox Theatre”, complete with cryptic spinning images, mystical musical score, and portentous voiceover:
“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. A slipstream caught between channels. The secret museum of mankind. The private library of shadows, all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only in a frequency caught between logic and myth. You are entering Paradox Theatre.”
So basically: Next stop—The Twilight Zone. Shortly after the camera pushes through the barrier of the screen it flips to color, but since most of the film takes place in the darkness of the small town at night it has a kind of black and white quality to it anyway. You’re dropped into the town of Cayuga, New Mexico in the middle of setting up for a basketball game at the high school. The camera follows fast-talking radio disc jockey and apparent town celebrity, Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), as he rockets through the chaos, greeting folks and making jokes in 1950s slang at top speed – and the film is almost all walking and talking. The experience is a bit like being dragged behind him at a distance like cans on a string, bouncing off of characters and scrambling to get your bearings. It’s both very much what the rest of the film is like and not at all what the rest of the film is like.
The high school is a big circle of light and life in the darkness. Virtually every person in town (all 492 of them) are attending the game, which makes the landscape that Everett and his friend Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) move through for most of the film a ghost town. The camera follows them down the empty streets as Everett walks Fay to the telephone switchboard office for her shift, pretending to interview her about the futuristic predictions she’s been reading about in her science magazines. It settles in for a long static shot as she listens to Everett’s radio show and deftly operates the switchboard, until both the show and one of the phone lines are interrupted by a strange sound that she’s never heard before. That’s when things slowly get creepy.
I say slowly because the film moves at the pace the characters actually move. It does not care that you are watching and want to know what’s happening. The characters don’t know what is happening and they are doing what they can about that, in a small town in 1950, so that’s how fast things will go. But somehow, despite that, the film doesn’t feel slow. When Everett asks Fay to wait while he puts the sound on the air and asks callers if they can identify what it is we also have to wait, but at that point the camera takes off, sweeping through the darkness of the town, into the bright and crowded space of the gym, and back into the night in an epic four minute long shot that looks like single take. It’s actually four takes deftly stitched together that were filmed over four days using an old go-kart borrowed from a town local, which Patterson said did not turn well. (There was an incident with a cat, which narrowly escaped, so they can still honestly say that no animals were harmed in the making of this film).
Patterson has said that the idea for Everett’s character was inspired by the Kecksburg UFO incident in 1965, when listeners called in to a Pennsylvania radio station to report a fireball crashing in the woods nearby and the radio host went to investigate and interview people at the site. The object was described by locals who saw it as acorn-shaped, car-sized, with what looked like hieroglyphics on the surface, and it was rumored to have been removed in secret by the US military. Once Everett and Fay start chasing down leads on the possibly alien radio signal, most of the action scenes involve Fay taking off running from one place in town to another because she is 16 and doesn’t have a car, and Everett catching up to give her a ride. At one point she steals someone’s bicycle to go break into the library, which clearly makes her feel like a rebel, even though the bike will no doubt be returned safely to its owner in the morning and she lets herself into the library with a key.
Patterson and his co-writer, Craig W. Sanger, did a very clever job of capturing the atmosphere and tension of a possible alien invasion and government cover-up through the emotional experience of a small number of characters. Unlike big budget films like Independence Day, where you see the action in detail and have insight from the perspective of heroes or leaders, The Vast of Night is from the perspective of random people who are just trying to find out what is happening and help other folks in their community using the skills and resources they have, in this case a telephone switchboard, a radio station, science know-how, journalistic skills, and a key to the library.
The Vast of Night manages to remind me of a whole bunch of other things without seeming derivative. The feeling of being dragged with the camera and the sense of anxiety in being tied to the experience of characters who don’t know what’s going on reminds me a bit of Cloverfield, even though the filming is in many ways the opposite of that handheld, chaotic, in the thick of things style. In some ways it resembles Pontypool¸ where all the news of a zombie apocalypse is coming in second hand through radio callers, but rather than the sense of danger coming from being trapped claustrophobically in one place, The Vast of Night emphasizes people’s vulnerability out in the open, far apart and disconnected across swaths of darkness. The slow pace and lingering shots of small-town America remind me of Wim Wenders films like Paris, Texas or Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, where folks in a small town slowly begin to realize, too late, that zombies and aliens are real. There are also echoes of the X-Files in the hints at alien abductions and government conspiracies, and Everett and Fay’s simultaneous fear and desire to believe that there might really be something up there in the sky.
I remember being really disturbed by the episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” where a shadow passes overhead and a boy who probably, like me, read too many issues of Amazing Stories, comes up with a tale about aliens who have infiltrated Earth and look just like humans. The town dissolves into paranoia and goes all Lord of the Flies, attacking each other while the actual aliens stand around commenting on how human beings basically conquer themselves. With all of the phenomenal pictures coming back from the James Webb space telescope and the adventures of the MARS Perseverance rover, the possibility of actually discovering signs of life elsewhere in the universe adds a new dimension to the longing to believe, but hopefully with less in the way of species-centric assumptions about what that life might look or act like.
Alex MacFadyen has no desire to visit space but is very happy to admire it from afar.