It’s half past five on the afternoon of December 21, 2020. Saturn and Jupiter are about to make their closest conjunction since 1623, and people of the world can rest assured that this global Saturn Return, coming to a head on the shortest day of the year, will have absolutely no effect on them. You’ll never know how or what or why planets and stars in the sky are up to. They barely give us any material to work with. Besides their relative positions in the Milky Way—the basis of astrology—these celestial bodies keep their lips sealed! I’m glad, because I finished The Vast of Night nearly an hour ago, and I’m still bugged out. My dad wrote about the same feeling that the creepiest of books, movies, and albums can give you—for him, it was Ottessa Moshfegh’s recent novel Death in Her Hands.
Produced and distributed by Amazon Studios, The Vast of Night left me wary of every hallway, buzz, passing light, and stray sound. The film, shot in widescreen, opens on a tiny cathode television in an anonymous room, its screen full of grainy stars and flying saucers. Rod Serling’s voice comes on, and before he can finish his Twilight Zone introduction, he’s introducing the film we’re about to see, The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson (writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger are credited at the end as authors of this “teleplay”).
Sometime in the 1950s, residents of a small town in New Mexico gathers in the high school gym for the big game. Cayuga is so small that an event like this leaves large swaths of the area uninhabited, and in this temporary ghost town, radio disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) are left to their own devices. High school sophomores or juniors, they never talk about college or current events: this is a film full of casual conversation and long takes. Not like John Michael McDonagh, who’s fine in small doses but is essentially a Reservoir Dogs rip-off artist, along with Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov, whose Why Don’t You Just Die! is full of Dropkick Murphy’s-style pub punk and the same stale gory Godot bit that too many young filmmakers are still stuck on.
The Vast of Night has few locations and even fewer characters, and they spend most of their time talking—but they just talk. There’s no subversion of archetype, no ironic footsie with putting impossible dialogue in the mouths of uneducated criminals or, in this case, naive high school students. When these characters talk, they talk about nothing. Not the Seinfeld “nothing,” really what you can only call dead air: awkward small talk with no relevance or connection to the larger story. The Vast of Night follows these characters and stays with them through lulls and through chases, and it’s this “dead time” that accounts for most of the dread I felt once it was over.
Over the switchboard and then the radio, Everett and Fay hear a strange whirring and clicking sound. This is after Fay gets disconnected from her sister and a couple of other people who sound panicked and possibly compromised. There’s an extraordinary long take where Fay connects and reconnects several people in the town and talks with them, again making small talk, as she—and we—wait to find out what that sound was. The Vast of Night, despite structured like a long episode of The Twilight Zone, is radically anti-TV in its insistence on holding shots, continuing conversations that “never lead anywhere,” and leaving everything resolved, if not explained.
And it’s this focus on conversation that parallels and emphasizes the film’s plot: aliens are hovering above Cayuga, others even higher in the sky, and those creepy sounds that we hear are alien communications. They’re trying to figure everything out, too. Everett and Fay talk to two older people with information on the phenomenon: the first is “Billy” (Bruce Davis), a black veteran who calls into the radio show to claim he heard that same sound on a highly classified mission years ago, “years before Sputnik.” He tells Everett live over the radio—when hardly anyone is listening because they’re in the high school gym—and after becoming disconnected, a woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer) calls in and asks the two of them to come to her house. “I know much more about this than you do, and I want to tell you now.”
Cue the strings. They’ll never make it out of there alive! Well, they do, and Mabel is a really nice lady. She tells them something wilder than Billy: she had a child out of wedlock with a man who worked a similar detail to Billy. He left her, and she raised their son alone. When he was 10 months old, he started speaking in tongues in his sleep. Not English, not Spanish, not “Indian,” nor the babble of Holy Rollers: this was a set of words from a language that no one on Earth knew. She kept them written down, and when her son was four, they were visited again. When he was nine, he stepped outside and was brought back up into the Mothership.
Mabel hasn’t seen him since, and begs Everett and Fay to take her to the Mothership. Everett looks at him with the cold, dead indifference of a police officer when he gets up, ignores Mabel’s outstretched hand, and grabs Fay’s arm and tells her it’s time to go. This is one of The Vast of Night’s few missteps, a nod toward contemporary gender and racial politics that sticks out not as anachronistic (a majority of people would probably leave the poor woman at home, to be fair), but simply as a reminder that this is a movie made in the year 2019. Everything else is working towards pulling our attention down to a pinpoint, so that when we finally see two spaceships at the end, the real world feels different, darker, and more dangerous.
The Vast of Night is achingly creepy and made with such assuredness, just like the best of The Twilight Zone. On its face, this is a simple story, and one heard and seen and read many times in the last 75 years. But to make material this simple this riveting and real—not only is it refreshing as a filmmaker to see something that isn’t a bad rip-off of something made before I was born, it’s exciting as a movie, and a fantastic way to build and hold tension. Despite the Serling introduction, it feels like a dramatization of true events.
In its first half, the film also changes aspect ratios for brief interstitial “oldass TV” sequences: thick manic grain, black and white with line and tracking issues, muffled and hard to hear. These scenes are also shot more like old TV shows than the widescreen sequences, with more frequent cutting and more traditional composition. Some of The Vast of Night looks and sounds like a scene out of one of Robert Altman’s many genre experiments, if only for its cross-cutting between a handful of cameras covering a scene as if it were TV but always pushing in, pulling out, and holding on in a full widescreen frame, an intoxicating synthesis of documentary and what Peter Watkins calls the “Monoform.”
This is only to say that the filmmakers have made a 91-minute alien movie for Amazon that feels real and universal and spectacular in its spirit, like that of a centuries-old ghost story. The Vast of Night is also, like Goosebumps and The Twilight Zone, scary and unsettling in a lasting way for viewers of all ages: there’s no gore, no swearing (as Everett reminds Billy on the phone as they’re about to go on the air), and nothing you could point to and suggest caution (some would say Everett and Fay’s period-appropriate chain-smoking is enough to warrant an R). But this is a frightening movie, and most of that comes from spending real time with its characters, as they move through “dead air” into the footlight of the Mothership.
The Vast of Night is much better than Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, because of what it doesn’t show and how few people are involved. Fay, Everett, Billy, and Mabel are the only characters with more than a dozen lines, and the latter two only have two long scenes. It’s a scary movie because it’s lonely, and when they go up at the end, we’re reminded that all events depicted are fictitious, but we all know, at some level, that the government interaction with extraterrestrials described in the film isn’t exactly inconceivable. It probably happened, whether in Cayuga or Roswell—but the thing that stings is the way these people have been treated, and how, as Billy says, “no one listens to us,” and that we’ve been kept in the dark about a reality beyond our blinkered perception that has been sitting waiting in a vault or a lab for nearly three-quarters of a century. Billy doesn’t lie!
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith