For those who love Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” and Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” comes this 1950s sci-fi thriller guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Strange lights appear in the sky on the night of a high school basketball game in a small town in New Mexico. A local late-night DJ (Jake Horowitz) and teenage switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) team up to crack the mystery in the debut feature by Andrew Patterson, which was shot in Texas.
“You’re entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten,” the narrator announces as the camera zooms in on an old black-and-white television airing an episode of “Paradox Theater,” which obviously pays tribute to the small screen anthology series created by Rod Serling in 1959.
“Tonight’s episode” the narrator exclaims, “The Vast of Night.”
The episode’s setting is the fictional Cayuga, N.M. (named after Serling’s production company), population 492, where excitement is in the air on a balmy evening at the high school gymnasium as the local basketball team warms up before the big game.
Filmed in Whitney, located between Austin and Fort Worth, which turns out to be the perfect setting for the story’s timeframe thanks to a downtown area that looks frozen in time. It’s a good starting point for production designer Adam Dietrich. From the vintage cars, to the clothing and small details, like the switchboard and radio station equipment, the viewer becomes immersed in the late ‘50s which have been meticulously recreated for the film.
Horowitz plays Everett, a whiz with electronics and the local late-night radio station DJ at WOTW located just on the outskirts of town, the call letters paying tribute to H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic “War of the Worlds,” first published in 1898.
Everybody wants to speak to Everett, his popularity soaring thanks to the radio gig, including 16-year old Fay (McCormick) who can’t wait to show him her new tape recorder. In a scene reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, the camera follows the two as they walk the streets of Cayuga, enveloped by the night, heading toward their respective jobs. Fay is a switchboard operator. The dialogue flows swiftly as Fay discusses modern technology including radio-controlled cars and how in the future everyone will be assigned a telephone number at birth that will remain theirs for life. The well-written scene showcases Horowitz and McCormick’s prowess. These actors are terrific and complement each other.
Once at work, Fay begins getting strange calls including a panicked caller cutting in and out while describing a large object hovering over her land and then there’s the noise. A pulsating hum can be heard in the background. It’s the same sound Fay heard on another call and it’s also the same sound that interrupted the radio waves during Everett’s broadcast.
The suspense builds like a John Carpenter film (I was thinking of “The Fog”) as Fay and Everett leave their posts to investigate the sightings by several townsfolk of strange lights in the sky while two callers have interesting stories to tell that may shed some light on what is happening.
Patterson keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as the fast-paced story escalates. There is an impressive one-take tracking shot that winds through the streets, heads inside the high school gym, goes out a window, across fields and down alleys as we get a mini tour of Cayuga that demonstrates where everyone is at just before the mysterious events begin to unfold.
“The Vast of Night” is the perfect example of how independent films can succeed at capturing the moviegoer’s imagination on a small budget. The score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer sets the film’s tone, it’s a nice accompaniment to the action transpiring on screen. The special effects are impressive, while Horowitz and McCormick keep the viewer engaged.
This stylish debut by Patterson should keep the filmmaker on Hollywood’s radar. If you love science fiction and “The Twilight Zone,” you’ll enjoy this scaled down “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”