'The Vast of Night': Film Review | Slamdance 2019

Unpacks a generation's worth of Cold War fascination and paranoia.

Andrew Patterson conjures a period perplexer of paranormal proportions in his cannily conceived debut feature.

Commercials director Andrew Patterson mines New Mexico's rich history of supposed UFO sightings, ET visitations and alien abductions in The Vast of Night, a throwback to '50s sci-fi anthology TV shows. By turns intriguingly odd and frustratingly obscure, this is confidently quirky material that nonetheless boasts superior production values with style to spare.

Patterson presents the film as an episode of the fictional Paradox Theater TV show, a series similar to the original Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. In the opening scene, the camera tracks in on a TV set as the program begins, with the announcer solemnly intoning "You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten. Tonight's episode: 'The Vast of Night.'"

A long scene-setting shot dominated by impressively fluid camerawork introduces high school student Fay (Sierra McCormick) and recent graduate Everett (Jake Horowitz), the late-night DJ at AM radio station WOTW in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico. Working the nighttime shift at the town's telephone switchboard office, Fay tunes in to Everett's radio show before taking a call from an unidentified woman, who tells her in a panicky voice that there are three large objects hovering above her house before the line disconnects. Meanwhile, the WOTW signal keeps getting interrupted by a strange audio transmission that sounds like dozens of faint voices mumbling through heavy static. Fay picks up the same sound on one of the switchboard lines and patches it through to Everett, who puts it on air live, asking listeners to phone in if they recognize it.

It's not long before Fay transfers a call to Everett from a man who identifies himself only as Billy (Bruce Davis), a disabled veteran. Everett puts him on air and in a long, rambling account, Billy describes his domestic Air Force service, which involved several clandestine assignments, including one at a remote desert location digging tunnels that were intended to conceal something resembling a large aircraft. He says that the same type of transmissions that Fay and Everett have identified interrupted military radio communications at the site. When he and others on the secret mission came down with undiagnosed illnesses, Billy concluded that the buried craft might not have been of earthly origin.

Shortly after Everett broadcasts Billy's unsettling experience, Fay gets a call from Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), an elderly woman who says she has a "companion" account that also involves the mystery transmission, but significantly pre-dates Billy's military service. By now the coincidental events in Cayuga are starting to suggest a pattern, but Mabel has something far more sinister to reveal that will send Fay and Everett on a quest that will radically change their perceptions about the Cayuga cluster of paranormal occurrences. For all their very public visibility however, these incidents taper off inconclusively by the end of the film, returning the town to its placid equilibrium.

The relationship between Everett and Fay also remains frustratingly tranquil. Although they're caught up in momentous events, they develop very little personal conflict, always pursuing the same objectives without disagreement or hesitancy, but there's never a hint of romance either. McCormick and Horowitz are charismatic enough as a team, but when they're rarely separated neither seems to project much individuation onto their characters.

Despite the film's aesthetic affinities for classics like The X-Files and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, co-writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger have crafted a script far more akin to a radio drama than the demands of a sci-fi feature. In particular, several very long conversations dominate the film, constraining the action with fixed shots and unvaried locations that weigh on the pacing. Although the final third fulfills some of the movie's higher ambitions, these developments arrive too late and end too abruptly to convey much excitement.

When the camera is moving however, either tracking or mounted on a drone, Patterson and DP M.I. Littin Menz achieve a heightened sense of reality that's noticeably missing from many other scenes. Production designer Adam Dietrich was clearly allotted a good chunk of the shooting budget and the settings (mostly Texas locations), props and classic autos all clearly convey a mid-'50s vibe that's strongly reinforced with period wardrobe selections.

Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Narrative Feature Film Competition)
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis
Director: Andrew Patterson
Screenwriters: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger
Producers: Andrew Patterson, Melissa Kirkendall, Adam Dietrich
Executive producers: Caleb Henry, Marcus Ross, Eric Williams
Director of photography: M.I. Littin Menz
Production designer: Adam Dietrich
Editor: Junius Tully
Music: Erick Alexander, Jared Bulmer

84 minutes