The Vast of Night opens with a dolly shot into a vintage 1950s television set and a show open reminiscent of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
The show is called Paradox Theater. Tonight’s episode: The Vast of Night.
Is Paradox Theater on a par with any of the classic The Twilight Zone episodes?
Is it worth watching?
Absolutely, hell yes.
The Vast of Night is an abundantly entertaining little low budget movie made on what appears to be the slimmest of budgets. That’s always quite an accomplishment.
It’s set in a small New Mexico town in the age of McCarthyism, Elvis Presley and reel-to-reel tape recorders.
It’s the night of a local high school basketball game, a night that quickly spirals out of control when people around town start hearing some other-worldly strange sounds that can’t be explained.
The mystery captures the attention of the local radio DJ and a high school girl filling in at the telephone switchboard and they are soon frantically trying to figure out what’s going on.
As it turns out, the sounds may be coming from UFOs that may have mysteriously visited the town in the past and possibly even abducted one or two of the residents.
It’s a creepy little tale that begins to unfold as the camera in that opening shot dollies right through the TV screen and into the show itself, transitioning from black and white video into color a la The Wizard of Oz.
Other visual surprises follow, some rather unconventional, like the decision to sometimes abruptly cut to a black screen as the audio continues for short passages.
At first, you think there’s something wrong with your TV, but then, in the far recesses of your mind you remember the intro to the old TV show The Outer Limits.
As the show open images were altered and distorted you were told, “there is nothing wrong with your television set . . .do not attempt to adjust the picture! We are controlling transmission . . . for the next hour, we all control all that you see and hear!”
You realize that you’re along for a fun ride that may defy your expectations. And it does.
There are long, long unbroken scenes such as one focusing on the teen taking calls at the switchboard, essentially one extended lock-down shot.
It shouldn’t work, but it does, remarkably well.
You find yourself getting caught up in the conversations that all play in “the theater of the mind” much like a classic radio drama. It’s brilliant.
To prove that these long takes are by design and not by necessity, there is a spectacularly long, unbroken moving shot that goes from the phone office, through streets and fields, to the entrance of the basketball field house and then into the game and spectators with 360-degree pans, all executed with fluid, flawless camerawork.
It seems to be making the point—hey, we could be splashy if we wanted to, but we’ve deliberately decided not to.
The long dramatic takes with people on the phone did remind me of the Sidney Lumet movie
Fail Safe (1964) with Henry Fonda as the President of the United States in his underground bomb shelter speaking to the Russian Premiere on the telephone as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
It’s a great lesson on how you can get maximum bang for minimal bucks.
Kudos here to the actors here (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz) who were able to navigate these extended takes so brilliantly and flawlessly.
I know that stage actors everywhere do this every night, but it’s rare to see this kind of performance in a film project these days.
The Vast of Night is a movie that seems to defiantly fly in the face of tradition and viewer expectations. And that makes it fresh and fun.
It’s scary and suspenseful and occasionally funny.
Some of the dialog early on talks about things that were pure science fiction in the Fifties like portable telephones that would someday have little TV screens on the back.
We’re reminded that we are currently living in the strange, distant future of the 1950s.
Speaking of the Fifties, there was another plot element that caught my attention: a weird, otherworldly phrase that reminded me of the famous trivia line “Klaatu barada nikto” from one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time, the Robert Wise classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
It’s a great little touch.
There is a lot of homage and a good deal of badass attitude in The Vast of Night.
Homage to all those old TV shows we loved and now miss.
Badass attitude in its bold, brash reconnection with those old shows.
No, it’s not The Twilight Zone. Or The Outer Limits.
And while it might lack that truly memorable plot twist at the very end that you might find yourself talking about for the rest of your life, it more than succeeds in making something out of practically nothing.
In the world of low-budget, independent films, that’s pretty impressive.
The Vast of Night is an Amazon Original movie.
You might also be able to catch it at your local drive-in on May 15.
Drive-ins in western Pennsylvania showing The Vast of Night:
Evergreen Drive-In Theater
Mount Pleasant, PA