The Vast of Night
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 8, 2020
This review is as spoiler-free as I can make it. I'm sure there are other reviews and synopses that will give you more information if you must have that. Andrew Patterson's directorial debut, The Vast of Night, is now streaming on Prime Video. It's a low budget throwback to late '50s/early '60s drive-in fare. It was only released at select drive-ins for a couple of weeks mid-May, before dropping on Prime May 29. The subject matter, and the visual esthetic, is perfect for the drive-in, and I have to wonder if it played at the only one I'm aware of near me, The Last Drive-In Picture Show in Gatesville. It would have made sense, especially if patrons knew it was filmed in Central Texas. They have remained open, but under more stringent restrictions due to Covid19. There is no indication it will be released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the forseeable future. I can't say I recommend it whole-heartedly, but it's only about an hour and a half, and if you already have Prime there are worse options. I've been more disappointed by certain recent blockbusters. If you aren't a Prime customer you can still take the link above and create an account for a trial period.
Produced independently by Patterson, for a reported $700,000, it was rejected by at least 18 festivals before it was accepted by the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It premiered on January 25, 2019, and won the Best Narrative Feature Audience Award. There is a long list of credits for technical personnel, but Patterson also donned several hats (and pseudonyms) for different credits. As James Montague he co-wrote the screenplay with Craig W. Sanger, and was one of the producers. As Junius Tully he served as editor. He may have had a hand in some camera work, but cinematography is credited to Miguel Ioann Littin-Menz. I have a few complaints about certain camera shots, or lack thereof, and some music I felt didn't fit the mood, but overall it does the best it can within the constraints of that limited budget. The opening scene is a slow dolly-in to an old TV, and I'm pretty sure that model is older than late '50s. The announcer, who sounds eerily like Rod Serling, is introducing Paradox Theater. Not sure why the announcer is not listed in the credits, either at the end of the movie or on IMDb. Could that be Patterson again? The camera eventually dollies all the way into the TV, and the fuzzy black and white image changes to color. Most of the town is getting ready to attend the high school's season opening basketball game, although the two leads head for their jobs. Sierra McCormick plays 16-year-old part-time telephone operator Fay Crocker, and Jake Horowitz is radio DJ Everett Sloan. Their performances are the highlight, but there are two others who use their short screentime for creepy and effective soliloquies. The first is Bruce Davis as Billy, never seen, just a voice over the phone. Then Gail Cronauer as Mabel Blanche, an elderly shut-in who imparts significant information. Or maybe she's just lost in a dream world.
The writing and acting for minor characters is weak, but I'm assuming most of them are amateurs and some might have been ad-libbing. My complaint about camera shots is primarily about the times when it reverts back to a black and white image on that TV screen, with Fay running down the street or through a field, or Everett driving from one location to another. It diminishes the story, implying it's just a TV show. Then there are times when there is no image at all, just a black screen, sound only. I didn't see any logic to that. Was some of the video lost, and they couldn't afford re-shoots? The purpose might have been to heighten the tension, but it was more puzzling and frustrating than suspenseful. Another problem is the dialog is sometimes garbled, several people talking over each other, and the subtitles didn't help since there was a time lag and some words and phrases were dropped from the captions. I do want to watch it again, and pay closer attention in order to identify buildings and other landmarks I know I've seen before. Most of the exterior filming was in two different towns I've been to many times. They're less than forty miles from where I'm sitting as I type this, Whitney and Hillsboro, Texas, although the setting is the fictional Cayuga, New Mexico. In any science fiction or fantasy film it is important for the actors to play it as straight drama, as if everything is as real as life, to not overact. McCormick and Horowitz accomplish that, which makes their fate even more poignant and dramatically effective. If you're tired of overblown superhero/action-adventure movies (I am), give this one a try. I'd rather celebrate up-and-coming new talent instead of the tried and (not so) true. It's not slick, but it is compelling, a science fiction film that also has the atmosphere of a noir mystery. Visually, and in some of the dialog, it has an early career Coen brothers vibe. That's high praise from me.
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