You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. It is a realm as vast as night and as timeless as infinity. The place is Cayuga, New Mexico, where everyone but the town’s smartest kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), have gathered to cheer on the local basketball team. Instead, they’re taking a nighttime stroll on an empty street. In just a moment they will find themselves at another kind of intersection, one between fantasy and reality. It seems something is hovering over their Eisenhower-era suburb. And it’s angry.
Though The Vast of Night owes a lot to The Twilight Zone, The X Files and Steven Spielberg, it is a rich horror film made out of familiar parts. Directed by Andrew Patterson, from a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, the Amazon release follows two teens investigating what may or may not be an alien invasion. Everett is a radio DJ who acts cooler than he looks (think Matthew McConaughey trapped in a nerd’s body), while Fay, a switchboard operator, doesn’t mask her shyness. They talk about science while walking to their respective jobs. “By 1990 all worlds will be electronic,” she tells him. “What an intriguing idea,” he replies. Part of this conversation is shown through unnerving tracking shots, filmed on a go kart that speeds around Cayuga like an alien stalking its prey.
These early scenes pulse with tension, invention and meta-references, mostly thanks to Patterson’s thinking outside the box — or inside the box, as the case may be. The film is presented as an episode of Paradox Theater, an on-the-nose rip-off of The Twilight Zone that plays out on a box shaped television. Other meta-winks are more subtle. When Everett parts ways with Fay, he starts his shift at a radio station called WOTW (a shout out to War of the Worlds).
Meanwhile, Fay works the town switchboard. Her calls start cutting out just as Everett’s radio music becomes static (with a weird clicking sound he thinks could be Soviet interference). The only thing that comes through clearly is a sense of danger, heightened by Erik Anderson’s playfully subversive score. That and a couple of bizarre phone calls. A woman screams something about UFOs through static. A man details how, years ago, he hid a strange, round-shaped object in Nevada for the government: “That sound on your radio… it’s the same one we heard in the desert.” This all drives Fay and Everett to investigate and see what’s going on.
Newcomers Horowitz and McCormick elicit memorable performances, especially when the action picks up and they are sent running around town, glowing with worry and excitement. After stealing a car, they drive through ’50s suburbia by way of production designer Adam Dietrich. The Cadillacs, short shorts, squeaky shoes, and horn-rimmed glasses, create a solid sense of place, earning compliments from directors Steven Soderbergh (Oceans 11) and Jeff Nichols (Mud). In one five-minute take, the camera starts on Fay lighting a cigarette, then creeps down a quiet street toward a parking lot, then enters a packed gym and hops into a basketball game, then circles a couple defenders, dives into the stands and out a window. It sprints across town faster than Lebron James runs back on defense, where it finally lands on Everette smoking a cigarette in a wheat field.
Like a lot of great mysteries, it’s the anticipation not the payoff that gets under your skin. More often than not, it’s a relief to be left in the dark, because Patterson trades jump scares for Fay and Everett’s slow discovery. Their adventure starts to feel like our own. By forgoing close-ups, his distant shots invite audiences to investigate every frame and image; bracing for jolts that may never come. And that’s OK. Patterson trusts his cast and atmosphere will compensate for the lack of “Boom! Gotcha!” surprises.
While there’s always room for realistic horror in a genre dominated by special effects, this is a special case. Since our government just released “official footage” of a UFO darting through space, The Vast of Night morphs into a form of realism. It’s no longer fun and games when someone shrieks, “Watch the skies!” It’s petrifying.