Review: ‘The Vast of Night’ brings indie science fiction suspense to Amazon

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick, right, in a scene from “The Vast of Night.” The film is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. (Amazon Studios via AP)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Vast of Night'

It premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival, where it was acquired by Amazon.

Now, the Audience Award winner “The Vast of Night” is streaming on Amazon Prime, bringing the type of retro B-movie science fiction that would be great to see at a drive-in.

Set in rural New Mexico in the late 1950s, it follows a young switchboard operator named Fay (Sierra McCormick) and a charismatic radio DJ named Everett (Jake Horowitz), who are working the night shift while the rest of the town attends a high school basketball game. When they discover a strange audio frequency, they set out to find its source.

From the start, a framing device presents the film as if we’re watching it all on a black-and-white TV, plunging inside to inhabit the world in color then popping back out to remind us that we’re watching something out of “The Twilight Zone” (1959). You’ll half expect to hear Bernard Herrmann’s Wurlitzer from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951).

Fans of the genre will appreciate the pop culture references. A dog is named Millie as in Millie Bobby Brown from “Stranger Things” (2016), while the radio station call letters are WOTW as in “War of the Worlds” (1953). Nevermind that it’s inaccurate; “W” call letters are reserved for the East Coast, while west of the Mississippi would technically be a “K.”

Okay, we’ll give the filmmakers a pass on that one. “Kar of the Worlds” doesn’t have the same ring to it — unless you’re singing the East Coast jingle to “K-A-R-S, Kars4Kids.”

More importantly, the pace resembles Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) more than J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” (2011), so adjust your expectations accordingly. That is to say, there is no alien monster that appears to start wreaking havoc on the town. This is a quietly suspenseful investigation in the hopes of communication.

That’s mostly a compliment with a preference toward slow burn suspense, though there are moments where we wish the script would get on with it. It’s amusing to hear Fay read science magazine predictions of smartphones and self-driving cars, but three anecdotes would have sufficed here. Instead, she gives about six examples as they walk and talk.

At an economical 89 minutes, things should move much faster. It’s vital to set up the ordinary world, but the catalyst should happen around 10-15 minutes in. As written, it happens closer to the 20-30 minute mark, as we pass the time with filler dialogue.

Eventually, director Andrew Patterson hits his stride with a four-minute-long single take that travels from Fay’s switchboard across town to the high school, swooping around the gym before exiting a window and moving back across town to Everett’s radio station.

Is this a natural personified camera like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960)? Or is it a supernatural point of view from a creepy entity like Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead” (1981)?

The script smartly keeps us guessing. Patterson and co-writer Craig W. Sanger manage to turn simple dialogue scenes into edge-of-your-seat suspense with a former military caller named Billy (Bruce Davis) and a home visit to an old lady named Mabel (Gail Cronauer). Both scenes are just people talking, yet we’re riveted by the stories they tell.

There’s even some underlying social commentary in that the caller is black and the woman is elderly, two demographics of society that no one wanted to listen to in the 1950s. They have all the answers, all of the first-hand evidence at their fingertips, but the rest of the populace is too busy gathering for the latest social trend, rallying in the gym.

In the end, it’s the lone individuals who seek the truth that actually find it. Patterson delivers a commendable finale that gets out at just the right time, setting up his final image in a previous scene, then leaving us with a chilling callback. It’s one small step for film, but one giant leap for an unknown filmmaker who just made his first footprints.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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