The Twilight Zone meets The X-Files in “The Vast of Night” (2020)…

*****FLYING SAUCER SHAPED SPOILERS AHEAD!!****

Despite the COVID-19 semi-quarantine, I haven’t really sampled many of the newer movies currently available for streaming, but there was one curious title that caught my eye; director/cowriter Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” (2020), a film recently purchased for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.  From what I’d heard, the film was an almost achingly pretentious but effective indie sci-fi flick that takes place in the 1950s and concerns a close encounter of the third kind in a small, fictional New Mexico town of Cayuga (named after Cayuga Lake, a favorite upstate New York vacation site of young Rod Serling, the creator of “The Twilight Zone”).   Cayuga is depicted as a small, sparsely populated New Mexico town where everyone knows everyone (New Mexico also being home to the infamous ‘Roswell incident’ of 1947), and almost the entire town can fill the local high school gym for the big basketball game.  “The Vast of Night” uses a lot of tricks to cheat its minuscule budget, telling its eerie, small-town alien story with utmost sincerity.

 

The Story.

Framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-wannabe called “The Vast of Night” (complete with Rod Serling-soundalike narrator) on a vintage 1950s TV screen, the film really lays on the homages thick at first, almost comically so.  The movie quickly settles into its own groove, away from its stylized trappings.

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The framing device of the movie within a Twilight Zone-style TV series was stylish, but unnecessary.

Taking place entirely over a single evening in a small New Mexico town in the late 1950s (evocative of George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”), the story begins at the big high school basketball game.   Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a charismatic local DJ in the town’s radio station WOTW, is called upon to bring some tapes to record the local high school basketball game.

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DJ Everett arrives at the local high school gym to help out with a tape recording jam. 

Once there, Everett encounters 16-year old Fay Crocker (an exceptional Sierra McCormick) who nurses a crush on the local DJ.  Everett tries to help the teenager overcome her shyness while assisting him with her new tape recorder… never once taking advantage of her apparent crush on him.  The reams of dialogue between Fay and Everett as he tries to coax her into doing test interviews with the game’s attendees is well-acted, but packed in long, rambling stretches that may tax some viewers’ patience.

Note: The high school gym is beautifully photographed in a 1950s-style sepia tone with subtle smoke-lighting.  No shortage on style here…

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The 1950s mood and look are well-realized, despite a micro-budget of $1 million.

To emphasize the town of Cayuga’s smallness, there are interminable scenes of characters walking (and later running) through near-desolate streetlamp-lit roads.  The scene where Everett walks young Fay to her job at the local switchboard takes place almost entirely in realtime, and in long unbroken stretches of dialogue.  They talk about their mutual ambitions to leave Cayuga someday, and other smalltalk.  Much of it feels a bit improvised and even a bit padded, but it does a decent job of fleshing out these two characters.

Note: The relationship between the slightly crushing teenager and the cynical small town DJ once again evokes “American Graffiti” with its relationship between street racer Paul Le Mat and a 12 year-old Mackenzie Phillips.  Paul Le Mat also starred in the 1983 movie “Strange Invaders,” which saw a small 1950s town involved in a similar alien invasion.  

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The extended walking scenes in the film are arguably trimmable, but they also help to establish both the characters and the sleepy, desolate nature of the fictional Cayuga, New Mexico.

Relieving her older coworker for her late shift at the town switchboard, we see 16 year-old Fay work the cumbersome contraption like second nature (hat’s off to Sierra McCormick, who couldn’t be old enough to even know what a switchboard was used for, let alone how to operate one so smoothly).  It is here where the plot thickens…

Note: This relatively short 90 minute film takes its sweet time to get into gear, which can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on a viewer’s given mood & patience.

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Fay, using a far bigger phone than anything the actress playing her had seen in her lifetime.

After a mundane evening spent connecting a few local callers, Fay hears an eerie, unnatural, arhythmic noise coming over her radio, which interrupts Everett’s evening broadcast.  She immediately calls Everett to tell him of the disturbance.  Once again, the smallness of the town is emphasized as we follow Fay literally running from the switchboard center over across town to Everett’s radio station.  There, she plays back a recording of the sound, and Everett is intrigued, speculating that it might be Russians sneaking over from neighboring Mexico, or some such thing.  Thinking it might make for “good radio”, he broadcasts the noise over the air, and asks his listeners if they can identify it for him.

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Mulder and Scully, The Early Years: Fay and Everett receive a mysterious call from the cryptic “Billy.” 

Everett soon receives a cryptic call from a self-identified black man named “Billy” (Bruce Davis), an ex-soldier who remembers the sound from his days in the army.  The sound was associated with a mysterious, rounded, crashed vehicle of some kind.  The popular terms ‘UFO,’ ‘alien,’ and ‘flying saucer’ are never used in the film.   Everett tries to press Billy on what he thought the craft might be, but the enigmatic Billy refuses to speculate, saying that he and each of the men in his unit only had pieces of the puzzle, but never the completed picture… they trusted the higher-ups in their chain of command to handle the heavy speculation.   Billy’s on air confession later leads Everett and Fay to another player in this mystery, an elderly woman living alone named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer).  The quest becomes an obsession for Everett and Fay as Everett steals a car to hurriedly drive across town to Mabel’s home!

Note: Both Everett and Fay abandon their respective posts at the radio station and switchboard with ease, neither showing great concern for what impact such actions might have on their jobs.  This may be attributable to small town thinking, where everyone knows everyone and no one takes things too seriously(?).  This reminded me of Richard Dreyfuss abandoning his own telephone line repairman job to pursue UFOs across state lines in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (another clear influence on this film), though Dreyfuss’ “Roy Neary” character was fired for his desertion.

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Mabel tells her story of her own ‘close encounters,’ only to be dismissed by Everett.

Per Mabel’s request, Everett (with Fay in tow) meet with the reclusive Mabel, tape recorder in hand.  As they walk in, the old woman is chanting something in a mysterious language.  She eventually unspools the story of how her dead lover (a telephone repairman, like the aforementioned Roy in “Close Encounters”) left her with a young son who made mysterious noises as a baby… noises that seemed to be some kind of unknown foreign language.  With the sounds repeated back to him, her son would go into some kind of trance.  This behavior convinced her that the sounds were not of Earth.  She tells them that her young son was taken by a large spacecraft, leaving only his footprints in the dirt behind.  Witnessing her young son’s abduction by a craft very similar to the one described by Billy convinced her to come forward with her story.  Mable asks Everett to take her with them to “the ship” in order to find “her son.”  It’s here that Everett draws the line.  Taking Fay and the recorder, Everett leaves Mabel’s house, refusing to buy the old woman’s story.

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The force can have a strong influence on the weak mind, as Everett and Fay learn with their friend Gerald.

Things get complicated when Fay is temporarily forced to juggle caring for her baby sister Maddie and pursuing the story with Everett.  Taking the baby in tow, she and Everett ditch their car, and get a more legal ride from friends Gerald (Mark Banik) and Bertsie (Cheyenne Barton) to follow the signal to its source.

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Sierra McCormick gives a breakout performance in the film.

Inside the car, Everett plays the recording of Mabel’s mysterious foreign chant, and suddenly both Gerald and Bertsie are hypnotized at the wheel, nearly causing the car to crash!  Snapping out of it in the nick of time, Gerald apologizes profusely for his inexplicable trancelike state, but Everett, Fay (still saddled with her baby sister Maddie) decide to go the rest of the way on foot.

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“If everything’s ready here on the dark side of the moon?  Play the five tones…”

In the final scene, Everett, Fay and baby Maddie see a small spacecraft overhead rendezvous with a much larger mothership, in a very literal homage to both “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The X-Files.”  The final scene sees the trio disappear, leaving only their final footsteps in the dirt behind.

The End.

 

Under the Influences.

“The Vast of Night” is a resourceful, scrappy sci-fi movie which relies strongly on its superlative cast to tell its story in massive expository chunks of dialogue, not too unlike hearing campfire stories as a kid.  Aside from the movie’s unsubtle allusions to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The X-Files” and “The Twilight Zone,” the long, unbroken monologues (particularly those of both Mabel and the unseen Billy) are very reminiscent of actor Robert Shaw’s famous ‘USS Indianapolis speech’ in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

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The far grander (and greater budgeted) mothership of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is more awe-inspiring than the deliberately dark and mysterious spacecraft seen in the finale of “The Vast of Night.”

“The Vast of Night”’s mothership also looks very similar to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” production designer Joe Alves’ original concept for that film’s mothership, which was first described as a silhouetted “oil refinery at night.”  The mothership in “The Vast of Night” has far fewer lights adorning it, achieving that more mysterious, “oil refinery” look that Spielberg eschewed in favor of his magnificent light-ship.

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What keeps “The Vast of Night” from being little more than a series of homages are its uniquely quirky characters, exceptionally strong performances and lingering sense of mood.  The murky, muted widescreen cinematography is used to emphasize both the small size of the town and the relative isolation of the characters to great effect.

 

Nits.

One of my biggest nits with the film is that its influences are often laid so bare (that early Twilight Zone homage, for example) that it comes dangerously close to chasing its own easter eggs.  Another is that it tells its story in long unbroken monologues that violate moviemaking’s cardinal rule of show, don’t tell.  While I made my own peace with this movie’s reversed approach, I could see where others might lose patience with it.

 

Cheap Past-Time. 

Director Patterson also deserves much credit for evoking considerable 1950s period-flavor despite a reported shoestring budget of $1 million (that doesn’t even cover catering costs in a typical Hollywood production!).

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Any more 1950s-looking and I’d half-expect to see Buddy Holly getting out of that car…

Filming in the small Texas town of Whitney, subbing for the fictional Cayuga of New Mexico, the desolate streets, old-style buildings, vintage cars, clothing and hairstyles used in the film make for a convincing 1950s feel.  That Patterson achieved this feat for effectively no money is a small miracle in of itself.  The milky contrast of the outdoor shots and sepia-tone indoor shots nicely evoke a shorthand visual language of the film.

 

Take a Bow.

Arguably the greatest strength of the movie are its performances; the actors in the film perform long stretches of dialogue with no breaks or cutaways.  Assuming this was a choice mandated by lack of funds for greater multi-angle coverage, the unbroken single master scenes generate an almost hypnotic impression at times, pulling the viewer right into that time and place, right along with the actors.   As “Everett,” Jake Horowitz’s wardrobe and glasses make him look more like a 21st century hipster (at first), but his performance is strong enough to easily dismiss that image.

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Sierra McCormick working that old switchboard like a boss.

Special kudos to Sierra McCormick (“Fay”), who, according to her IMDb page, was born in 1997 (I have shirts older than this kid), yet she works an old style, clunky analog switchboard as easily and effortlessly as others of her generation work a smartphone.  Her long unbroken scenes of working that old contraption really help to sell the reality of her situation.   She also does a hell of a lot of running in the film as well, as we see Fay dashing from one side of town to another multiple times in unbroken shots (though she later steals a bicycle in desperation).  All of that running couldn’t have been easy to do in a large ‘50s vintage skirt and hard saddle shoes…

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Bruce Davis gives a solid, but sadly unseen performance.

Equal kudos to actor Bruce Davis, who played the unseen Army-veteran “Billy”, who is little more than a voice in the darkness, telling his Roswell-style story with a similar blend of of regret and bitterness that Robert Shaw’s Quint possessed during his “USS Indianapolis” monologue in the aforementioned “Jaws.”  It’s a shame that “Billy” was never seen onscreen, but Davis’ vocal performance is as solid of any given by his onscreen counterparts.  The performances of “The Vast of Night” are its strongest assets.

 

COVID-Safe Viewing.

“The Vast of Night” is available to stream for free with an Amazon Prime subscription. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic.  The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 155,100 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet.   Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe.  So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.

Watch the skies and be safe!

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