What is out there in the vast of night?
When I was in middle school, I went through a period where I was obsessed with radio plays from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. You could find the scratchy old broadcasts preserved on cassettes here and there, and boutique publishers online had large sets on CDs. What fascinated me was the enveloping nature of the stories; they were sometimes clumsily written or acted, and usually featured overly obvious narration, but the best shows left just enough out that one’s brain could create scenes of suspense and terror more potent than had they been depicted visually. Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is an homage to science fiction and horror classics of that era, and like them it benefits from withholding information, allowing the audience to create their own thrills.
Set in late ‘50s New Mexico, The Vast of Night occurs all on a single night when most of a small town is clustered in the local high school gym for a basketball game. However, the school and town have suffered from odd power outages and unexplained flickering lights; enter the fast-talking radio host Everett Sloane (Jake Horowitz). It’s probably not a coincidence that the occasionally obnoxious character is named after the fast-talking and occasionally obnoxious actor who made such an impression as part of Orson Welles’ stock company in Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai. Everett takes break from his radio show to help with the recording of the basketball game, which he’ll replay at the station the following day. He’s joined by Fay Crocker (a charming Sierra McCormick), a high school student who wants his help operating a brand new tape recorder she’s just purchased.
But once the two separate — Jake going back to the station and Fay to her nightly job as a switchboard operator — an eerie aura envelops the town. Fay catches an odd mechanical clicking over her phone lines, and her friends and neighbors can’t be reached at home. When she patches the strange sound for Everett to play at the radio station, a listener calls in with a tale of having heard that sound before during secret government testing from years earlier that he’s not supposed to be telling anyone about. He thinks the sounds might be coming from somewhere high up, and the few people not at the basketball game start to notice strange objects flying in the sky.
Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger wisely avoid showing too much in The Vast of Night. Everett and Fay barely understand what’s happening around them, and the film keeps the audience almost as much in the dark. It’s constantly withholding, but in the best possible way, making us lean forward in hopes of learning more. In the bravura call-in scene, Bruce Davis gives a compelling performance that’s done completely over the phone, and Patterson periodically cuts to a black screen throughout, giving the audience a chance to create our own visuals to accompany his story, as one would have with an old radio play. At other times, Patterson lets his camera zoom around the small town to thrilling effect.
The Vast of Night features interludes shown on an old black-and-white television, with a pitch-perfect Rod Serling impression for a fake anthology series called Paradox Theater. The film doesn’t have much of The Twilight Zone’s social politics or irony, but the framing further underscores its connection to Cold War-era America. The best science fiction from that period captured a nation simultaneously enthralled and terrified by the future it might unlock, and The Vast of Night effectively replicates those conflicting emotions. Fay and Everett are terrified of what might be causing the disturbances in town, but there’s no way they’ll give up until they find out what it is.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 8, 2019 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.