Sunday, February 03, 2019

Slamdance ’19: The Vast of Night

It really was a weather balloon. If you doubt it, check out the articles in The Skeptical Inquiry debunking the Roswell UFO myth. It is a good story, but it is just a story. Nevertheless, the need to believe has made New Mexico ground zero for the flying saucer faithful. Apart from the Roswell rumor-mongering, New Mexico’s wide-open deserts and low population density make fictional Cayuga, NM a suitable location for paranormal goings-on in Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, the plucky microbudget winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

Vast of Night is ostensibly an episode of a 1950s science fiction anthology show called Paradox Theater that we start watching on a vintage black-and-white vacuum tube television, before the picture morphs into the evocatively washed out color of the characters’ world. Everett is a cocky high school student who works part-time for the local AM radio station. Everyone in town probably assumes he and Fay will eventually become a couple, but for now, they just bicker too much. Tonight, he is happily helping her get the hang of the new portable tape recorder she just ordered from Montgomery Ward.

Nearly everyone in town will be at the big high school basketball game, but he will be on the air at WOTW and she will be covering the town’s telephone switchboard. When reports of strange lights in the sky start to come in, the ambiguous couple will be able to coordinate their efforts to investigate. It turns out, something downright Roswellian might be afoot, based on claims of “Billy,” a former US Air Force officer, who calls into Everett’s show.

Frankly, it is shocking how well put together Vast is, especially given its extreme budget constraints. It is definitely one of the best looking, smartest written X-Files-esque films in decades. Patterson and cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz give it an intimate vibe with their claustrophobic long takes, but they also capture a sense of the lonely emptiness of the small town when their restless camera pans from one location to another during transitional scenes. Strange Invaders, the cult favorite from 1983, would be a logical comparison title, in terms of themes and vibe, but Vast is a far superior film.

The period details and visual effects are definitely impressive, but the chemistry between Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, as Fay and Everett, respectively, is what really elevates Vast. They are terrific together and they both absolutely knock out of the park screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger’s long, knotty passages of dialogue. They also get first class support from the rest of the ensemble, including the pitch-perfect heard-but-not-seen Bruce Davis as Billy and Gail Cronauer, who holds viewers absolutely rapt as Mabel Blanche, another eye witness of sorts.

Vast of Night is a film you really should see in a darkened theater, because it would be a shame to let the distractions of mundane life break the spell Patterson and his actors cast over the audience. Granted, the story itself is hardly groundbreaking, but Patterson’s mastery of mood, the palpable sense of place, and the work of his two co-leads are really quite special. Very highly recommended, The Vast of Night should have a long life ahead of it with genre film fans, after winning the Audience Award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.