“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten,” says The Vast of Night’s narrator, who sounds like Rodman Edward Serling, the voice of the normal/paranormal worlds of The Twilight Zone. As we enter a home and move toward the television, we see that he Paradox Theater is on TV playing an episode titled “The Vast of Night.”
Directed by Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night is successful because it’s close to its Twilight Zone cousin and carries the blueprint of turning a completely average scenario into something abnormal. And to invest in this film is to wait, eagerly, for a twist and to decide not only what it means for the characters, but also what it means more broadly because maybe there’s a valuable lesson that will help us all if only we can find it.
On a night in Cayuga County, New Mexico, the whole town is getting ready for a basketball game. Everett (Jake Horowitz), who runs a local radio show, encounters sixteen-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who will soon go to her night shift as a switchboard operator. The two play with a tape recorder Fay has just purchased and interview people in their small town. It’s the 1950s and having a tape recorder is quite a new and unusual phenomenon.
After starting her shift, Fay notices calls keep dropping and that a strange frequency is coming from both the switchboard and from Everett’s broadcast at the radio station. She receives a call from a woman who saw some large objects and is retreating to her cellar. Everett has Fay switch to the frequency on the board, and he broadcasts the sound on the radio, advertising a prize for anyone who is able to provide more information.
Fay also receives a call from Billy (Bruce Davis), who’s heard that sound before.
This film has a radio-like quality and allows us to listen to long tales from people like Billy and Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer). And given the time period, the fact that the stories of a person of color like Billy and an older woman like Blanche are the focal points around which Fay and Everett conduct their exploration is rather progressive.
During Billy’s story, the screen fades to black, and all that’s audible is his voice or Everett’s. This film’s emphasis on storytelling over visual flair makes it different than other extraterrestrial tales. It would rather the viewer use one’s imagination to devise the flashbacks and the aftermath of its ending than to spell it out with a creature attack. (Though there is an unidentified object shown toward the end, just enough to satisfy the sci-fi viewer). And the formulaic notion of the film, knowing it’s an ordinary world that could turn extraordinary, doesn’t mean it’s predictable.
Though Fay and Everett at times display some more traditional feminine and masculine tendencies — the nervous, nice girl who’s too honest and the harsh, take-charge know-it-all guy — they still come across as genuine. Fay is honest because she’s so caring toward her family and town, and her sensitive nature seeps through to Everett.
The Vast of Night is a simple story, and, despite the paranormal elements, has the look and feel of something that could take place in a town near you. But more than that, it takes us back to a time where the dialogue and the story are more important than anything else, and films like this are few and far between so they should be seen whenever possible.