Recently, the Pentagon released videos of “unidentified aerial phenomenon,” causing an uptick in UFO interest. However, the idea of little green men has been with us for years. Area 51 and Roswell continue to fuel conspiracy theories. Shows likes “The X-files” and “Ancient Aliens” still generate memes. Therefore, if you’re going to make a film about aliens, the trick is to make it innovative.
Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut, The Vast of Night, does just that. On the one hand, it gives a kind nod to 1950s sci-fi shows like “The Twilight Zone,” while also using the technology of the 1950s to tell a familiar story eerily well.
Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, The Vast of Night uses a few storytelling and camera tricks to make a familiar topic interesting. The film begins with reference to Rod Sterling, as a sci-fi episode plays on a small TV with an opening similar to the “The Twilight Zone” and a voice similar to Sterling’s. The camera then zooms in and we’re introduced to our plucky protagonists, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz).
McCormick and Horowitz play off each other well. Early on, you realize that they want to be part of something larger and escape Cayuga, where a Friday night means jamming into the high school gymnasium and cheering on the local basketball team. Fay initially follows Everett around with a tape recorder, as he teaches her to how to ask questions and piece together a news story. You understand that she dreams of being more than a telephone operator. Meanwhile, he’s a cocky radio voice certain he’s destined for something more. He just needs the right story to launch his career.
They’re soon swept up in an otherworldly event once Fay hears strange noises while alone at work. Nothing is shown, but the sound is eerie. It’s followed by calls about strange lights in the sky. This scene is the perfect example of how less can be more. The sound and following calls leave plenty to the imagination.
Much of the narrative is told through the technology of the time, including the switchboard but also Everett’s radio show. He broadcasts the noise and asks callers if they know what it is. Subsequently, what follows is one of the most chilling scenes in the film. A caller, Billy (Bruce Davis), shares detailed information about his time in the military and witnessing strange occurrences and crafts.
Here, the scene fades to black and it’s only Billy’s voice, pausing at times to continue the story. A military officer once woke him in the middle of the night and ordered him onto a bus with blacked-out windows. This decision to favor monologue over scenes of UFOs or aliens works.
In another scene, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), narrates a gut-wrenching story about the loss of her son, snatched by aliens one night. His footprints just stopped a few feet outside of the home, she recalls. The story, coupled with Cronauer’s stoic performance, are spellbinding and as tense as Billy’s radio call-in.
Like Billy, Blanche exists on the margins of society. She’s shunned by the town for having a child out of wedlock by a man who left her. Since the disappearance of her son, she’s lived alone. Billy tells Everett and Fay the military picked black and brown men for the strange missions because no one would believe their stories about UFOs. The Vast of Night is careful never to soak the 1950s in rosy nostalgia. Billy and Blanche’s stories are a reminder of how painful it was if you weren’t part of the majority in 1950s small town America.
Their scenes are some of the most effective in the film, but so are the more subdued scenes when Everett and Fay simply contemplate their futures. In the radio station, Everett confesses that he hopes the news story about strange lights and noises overtaking Caygua will land him a radio gig in a bigger city. Fay also wants to move, but she dismisses the notion of college because she says she can’t afford it. It’s Everett who reminds her of loans and is certain she’d succeed doing whatever she wants to do.
In another scene, Fay muses about what technological changes may await humans. She references numerous science magazine articles that prophesize electric highways and small phones with TVs and a color picture. Everett dismisses the notion as crazy, but now we’re so accustomed to smart phones that it’s hard to imagine a world without.
This banter between the two is charming, but it also shows how technology we have today would have been deemed impossible or even mocked years ago. Who’s to say what the future holds? That’s part of the fun of The Vast of Night. It asks us to think about the future, while contemplating our place in a much bigger universe.
Furthermore, it’s a film that manages to explore an overdone topic, little green men, in a fresh way. Yet, there is no idealized version of 1950s America. The film shows how trapping small towns can be, hence Fay and Everett’s hunger to leave. Additionally, Billy and Blanche’s stories are a reminder how anyone who didn’t fit into white, patriarchal norms was branded an outcast.
The Vast of Night is the perfect summer flick. It’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime, but it’s also making its rounds at drive-ins, while theaters are still closed. If it plays at a local drive-in, turn on your radio and watch it under the stars. Who knows, maybe a strange noise will come over your radio that makes you question what’s out there.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.