The Vast of Night opens like a Twilight Zone episode broadcast in a version of the future imagined in the '50s. The camera slowly pulls the viewer into a golden television set, promising a tale between "myth and magic." Once we break through the thin membrane of the blue-and-white screen, we are introduced to the town of Cayuga, New Mexico, circa 1950, where everyone is heading back to high school for the first basketball game of the season.
Well, everyone except for Fay (Sierra McCormick), an adorkable science nerd that works as a nighttime switchboard operator, and her friend, Everett (Jake Horowitz), Cayuga's boiled-in-the-wool WOTW radio host. According to director Andrew Patterson, WOTW is a double reference to Orson Welles' performance of War of the Worlds and to the impossible existence of Cayuga itself: American radio stations are never West enough to warrant starting with the letter "W."
At their respective stations and separated by the night, the school building, the forest and the town, Fay and Everett's antennas pick up a mysterious beating signal that interferes with Fay's callers and with Everett's program, and that frightens every Cayugan that, like them, has not gathered in the school gym to watch the basketball game. When Everett plugs a recording of the signal into his program, asking his listeners to call in if they know what it might be, they start to receive increasingly alarming testimonies from other isolated townies spanning almost a century.
Although The Vast of The Night reads, to all intents and purposes, like a missing episode of The Outer Limits or The X-Files, it packs a fistful of social commentary: the radio callers are alone not because of choice, but because of their position in the crushing social hierarchy of the era. They have suffered so much discrimination that their testimonies seem tainted by their harrowing experiences, and the protagonists struggle to accept them at face value, fighting between the evidence beaming and beating above their heads that confirms the words of the marginalized of their community, and their desire to explain the phenomena away by tying them to a reassuring USA Cold-War era operation.
The Vast of Night is acutely aware of the many faults of the McCarthy era, but it remains a deeply steeped in '50s nostalgia peppered with references to the dawn of the space age and the promise of "better living through technology."
This longing pops up in the charming, rapid-fire opening dialogue between Fay and Everett, where they marvel at all the ways in which technology will sweep them into the future: from self-driving cars with directions coming out of the radio to pneumatic tunnels that will reach every corner of the world and to palm-phones with a screen that will allow every person to talk to anyone, anywhere.
Both Fay and Everett are extremely competent and even passionate about their jobs, and this is shown through the relationship that they have with their machines that they operate almost as an extension of their bodies. Everett's radio station and its recorders let him broadcast to the world, and Fay's switchboard allows her to interconnect anyone in the community. Both of them wish for more than their town can offer, but their optimism about what the future might hold in store is contagious.
This is one of the reasons why the characters work so well together; the other being the spectacular job the lead actors do in portraying them. Sierra McCormick as Fay delivers the pitch-perfect eagerness of a whip-smart 16-year-old, and Jake Horowitz is her ideal counterpart as Everett, a high-school senior with the makings of a great reporter who is trying really hard to carve an identity out of competence, swagger and silver-screen antihero mannerisms.
The supporting actors are also superb. Bruce Davis plays Billy, one of the callers, and his voice-acting experience pays off as his tale unfolds on the air, marking the start of the second half of the movie. Gale Cronauer plays Mabel Blanche, an old Texan lady with a couple of bone-chilling stories and an even scarier request that will haunt the audience long after they leave the theater.
Andrew Patterson said that he wanted the movie to feel like it could transcend mediums, and he succeeds -- The Vast of Night would be an excellent podcast or theater play, although it would lose the visually-rendered geographical isolation of the characters, which works in favor of the slow-burning threat haunting Cayuga's free agents. It would also lose the spectacular single-take two-minute shot that leads the viewer from Fay's operator shack to Everett's radio station. The scene starts like a neat camera trick, but as the audience sweeps through the town, under ghostly lights that cast no shadow, the camera movements take on a lurking quality that hints at the otherworldly puppeteer controlling the town's strings.
Not that the ending needed to be foreshadowed, thanks to the opening scene that firmly frames the story within the pulpiest Twilight Zone serials. We might not know the specifics, but the isolation, the darkness and the way that Fay and Everett are stripped of the very things they wished for in their first lines (communicating with the town, a reliable mean of transportation) as well as the callers' ominous words spell out a classic horror/sci-fi ending long before we see it happen.
Or do they?
Because depending on your reading of the movie, the beautiful and terrifying climactic ending could also be interpreted as the emotional culmination of Fay and Everett's slow-burning quasi-romance, as they are swept into a future more mind-bending that they could have ever imagined.
So, is The Vast of Night for you? If you like The X-Files, Super-8, The Twilight Zone, Welcome to Night Vale or Pleasantville, then yes, you will love this movie. If sci-fi is not your cup of tea, you can still watch it for the recreation of a sleepy '50s New Mexican town, the careful use of vintage technology, the great acting and the wonderful dialogue.
Directed by Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night stars Sierra McCornick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davies. It was first screened in Toronto as part of the Midnight Madness program of the TIFF on September 12th, 2019, and purchased by Amazon the same night. It will be coming to a screen near you very soon.