Every attempt to recapture the success of The Twilight Zone has been a failure, and unfortunately The Vast of Night is no exception.
The Vast of Night owes a lot to The Twilight Zone, a debt which the filmmakers really want you to notice. The opening shot is of a television with some very Rod Sterling sounding narration, which zooms in as the title is displayed and further still until its screen fills the frame and we fade into the world of the story. Even throughout, over montages designed to obscure the film’s low budget, the footage will switch to a crackly black and white VHS quality image, as though to remind you — as though you’d forget — that they are indeed doing a bit. It’s honestly enough to make you question as a watcher why they didn’t realise the greatest strength of the iconic television series: that each episode was only 25 minutes long.
Director Andrew Patterson clearly has enough energy behind a camera to sustain a feature; unfortunately, the material from which he is working does not. There is simply not enough going on in this tale of a mysterious audio broadcast intriguing the denizens of a small country town to justify even its scant 89-minute runtime. Not narratively, in the case of its overlong meandering scenes that do little to advance the characters or the story; nor thematically, its references to the political landscape of its 1950s go largely unexamined; nor tonally, which as already said amounts to no more than a breathless reminder of, ‘Wasn’t The Twilight Zone cool!’
It is most useful, then, to look upon it as a purely aesthetic exercise, at which it has limited success. The two main modes of frantic activity and chill repose feel natural and well staged, the two leads rising to the challenge of keeping us grounded in rather airy feeling situations. Sierra McCormick is incredibly charming as a 16 year old switchboard operator. An early scene of her manning the boards as chaotic events start taking place on the outskirts of town is shockingly reminiscent of Kim Hunter in A Matter of Life and Death, and, in one reserved long shot, her face commands the screen with the same effortlessness. Co-star Jake Horowitz fares less well, seeming to retreat behind his radio DJ character’s Buddy Holly glasses and assertive demeanour.
She comes to represent the repose and he the restlessness, and they are united in perhaps the film’s most striking scene, in which the camera races from one side of town to the other in a single shot to see them both smoking outside of their workplaces. Yet still, even in this lovely moment, something feels off, the camera itself seems artificial, it does nothing to connect their disparate worlds and worldviews. No transcendence here, just an unquestioning depiction of reality at odds with the dynamism on display.
It is at its most destructive when the film turns its eye upon technology. The obsession here is with the analogue: reel-to-reel recorders, old time-y radio dials, the frantic juggling to manually connect calls as they come in, and yet the film is unable to convey to us the pleasures of that tactility. One gets the sense that it’s far more concerned with the idea of the way things were than the material reality of existing in a different time. It is hard to stay invested as the longer it goes on, the more readily apparent it is that the film will never become anything more than it appears on the surface.
It would be unfair not to note that The Vast of Night is a first film for much of the creative team involved, and the constraints that they were working under are readily apparent. There is, undoubtedly, talent on show here, unrefined and present only in small glimpses, but talent nonetheless. It is there in the nervous way a girl explains she keeps hairpins in her instrument case to an older boy, in the way the camera floats through basketballers at the local high school, in the restraint of only hearing a tragic story over the telephone — an unseen black man making his voice heard in a very white community.
I will be watching with interest to see where this production team goes, but, as for The Vast of Night, I’m unlikely to want to watch it again.
The Vast of Night is now available to watch.
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