Sunday, 18 April 2021

The Vast Of Night

A Cayuga Production

The Vast Of Night
USA  2019
Directed by Andrew Patterson
GED Cinema

The Vast Of Night is a film that would have passed me by completely had I not been pointed towards it so... firstly, thanks to Biggles for the recommendation. It’s a shame this isn’t more widely known or available on physical media (I would buy a Blu Ray of this for sure) as it’s one of those damn ‘near perfect’ films which come along every now and again. One of those features that are technically brilliant and actually manages to use the camerawork and editing to really pull an audience into a story.

Well, okay, perhaps story is too strong a word to use here as the film definitely has a 'one note' mystery set in the late 1950s at its heart and the strength of both the arresting visual and audio components coupled with some great performances from the two leads... Jake Horowitz as local, small time radio DJ Everett Sloane and Sierra McCormick as local telephone switchboard operator Fay Crocker... makes for a film which is not overly reliant on its somewhat simple idea, transcending it all by confounding any expectations that this would anything other than humdrum.

Simply put, the film plays out one night in the fictional town of Cayuga (yeah, I know, I’ll get there in a moment, the whole film is littered with these kind of references) and takes place pretty much in real time, as a basketball game in a local high school serves as both an anchoring point and a countdown clock for the one and a half hour the course of events depicted take place. Said ‘incident’ in the film deals with... ‘something over the skies’ during this summer evening and how two friends, Everett and Fay, latch onto a strange sound concurrent with some activity seen by a few people who are out on the streets while the basketball game is in progress. I’ve not headed this review up with a spoiler warning because, in terms of spoilers, the film really is essentially a one trick pony and there’s no real reveal of anything you’re not set up to suspect from the start.

The story is supposed to be inspired by both the Foss Lake Disappearances and the  Kecksburg UFO Incident but, yeah, I couldn’t find too much of a correlation with these so, ‘inspired’ is definitely the word. However, the film does wear it’s science fiction influences on its sleeve right from the outset, when we are treated to a shot of an old TV set from the 1950s which is beginning to play a TV show which is... yeah, well it’s a deliberate parody of the opening of the old The Twilight Zone TV show called, in this iteration, Paradox Theatre and they’ve even got an actor called Mark Silverman doing the opening narration in the exact same tone and style of delivery as Rod Serling’s intros for the show (indeed, a quick check on the IMDB shows that the actor also provided the voice of Rod Serling in the recent 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone, as it turns out). It’s a nicely done parody and then we find the title of the movie, The Vast Of Night, is the title of the episode we are watching. Shakespeare afficionados may recognise that phrase as being from The Tempest, which makes perfect sense here because one of the most successful 1950s science fiction movies of that decade was Forbidden Planet, which was a science fiction variant of The Tempest.

We then slow zoom into the action on the black and white TV and into the film which then opens up into widescreen and full colour imagery. Here’s the thing though, the film is split up almost into little mini chapters to begin with and, when one sequence changes we zoom back out and watch it back as a black and white image on the TV each time before re-entering the picture. We are right from the start introduced to the fictional town of Cayuga and, again, any fans of The Twilight Zone will recognise this as Rod Serling’s production company Cayuga Productions.

The film starts off by catching us up to the main characters in a twenty minute sequence where the camera follows Everett setting up the sound system for the high school game and then both he and Fay as he teaches her how to use her new tape recorder. It’s a frenetic and brilliant opening and, I’d like to say it’s all done in one take but I don’t think it is... I was too drawn in to take much notice but I believe, when I looked into it, that the longest take is a ten minute shot in the next mini chapter of Fay at her switchboard so, there must have been a few cuts in this opening sequence (there were, I watched it again when i showed the movie to someone else a few days later). The pace is deliberately more static (ish) for the switchboard sequence which makes up the next ten or so minutes of the film and then, when Fay opens the door of her room, she kind of frees the camera which picks up the pace on its own, makes it’s way all over to the other side of town in one shot, checks out the game and then travels over to Everett’s nearby radio broadcasting room. The call sign of the radio station, WOTW, might be a puzzle in terms of the region it’s supposed to be operating from... until the viewer maybe realises that it’s also the initials of the title of one of the most famous, inadvertent radio hoaxes of all time... Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of H. G. Wells' War Of The Worlds.

This is a film with absolutely brilliant camerawork which sometimes, as in that sequence, takes on an almost narrative voice and at other times, more often, focuses on bringing you the characters and giving them room to breathe as you watch the performances. Indeed, it’s an old trick but the director uses a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom on some of his ‘static’ shots to pull you into the characters and make you feel even more like a fly on the wall. He’s got a good thing going here with a combination of different styles for different uses but the shots are always smooth and controlled, I don’t recall seeing much hand-held stuff here at all, even during the scenes where there is a lot of running going on... Fay has a quirk where she forgets that you can just get in a car and go somewhere, always running somewhere as a result (which I guess you can kind of do in a small town).

Another thing the director does, which is absolutely terrific, is when a ‘caller’ who tells one of those great “the Government are collaborating with the aliens” stories, gets a lot of airtime and instead of sticking with the image of Everett listening to his voice on the air, the screen blacks out completely for a few minutes (a couple of times) so we can experience the story with just the sound alone, like a radio audience would. This is a great and brave moment for the film as far as I’m concerned (and for the director or whoever had this idea) and I don’t remember, off hand, seeing this done before.

And it’s the little things which also help give the illusion that the film is very much a 1950s thing. Such as the language used by the characters. Not many period movies think about the way language can change these days but expressions like “Double Dealing Devil Dog” and “Ras My Berries” give it a real historic feel and kind of act as verbal anchor points to ground the movie in its time frame and I enjoyed the way the director (who also wrote this under a pseudonym) uses repeat stories like ‘the squirrel who bit through the wire’ incident to give a credibility to the feeling of ‘ordinary people living in a an ordinary town’ sensibility, which is shot through the narrative. I also loved the ‘future predictions’ that Fay tells Everett about from the time and their ‘almost but not quite right’ nature, which were indeed culled from issues of Mechanix Illustrated of that period. This itself says a lot about the two characters, with Everett seeming a bit sceptical and so gives a bit of foreshadowing to the attitude of the two of them later, with Fay being quick to embrace the obvious phenomena on which the film is centred while Everett is much more inclined to speculate that... “it’s the Soviets”.

There were two moments which did manage to pull me out of my transfixed state and pop me out of the movie at different points in the film. The first was when, as Everett walks Fay to her switchboard and the two are getting ‘fake interview’ footage from the people they meet on her new tape recorder, one of the families in the car mentioned the recent incident of the Grimaldi’s. Well of course I pricked my ears up straight away at this because, as soon as they said it, I could hear Kevin McArthy’s voice as Dr. Miles Benwell saying... “And so I ran. I ran as little Jimmy Grimaldi ran the other day.” Was this a reference to the 1956 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (reviewed by me here). Well, I looked it up and, you bet, in my excitement at hearing the name Grimaldi I missed some references to the fictional town of Santa Mira, which is where the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers takes place. Another of many references by the director to 1950s sci-fi movies.

The other thing which jumped me right out of the picture was when the camera is first in the radio station. I’d assumed from The Twilight Zone parodies that the film was set in the late 1950s and the director himself says the events of the film take place in 1958. All fine and dandy but I spotted the prominent placement of the vinyl soundtrack album to Walt Disney’s Peter Pan in a few shots. Okay, so fine that Peter Pan was a 1953 movie but, something rang wrong here and, yeah, it turns out that the soundtrack album in question wasn’t released until 1960, over a year after the time setting for this movie. So, yeah, while I’d like to believe this was  the director practicing something I read about in the early 1980s called ‘controlled anachronism’... I suspect he just made a mistake and didn’t realise the album wasn’t released until later, in this case.

The music on this one by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer sounds strange and ethereal and really helps to sell the atmosphere of the movie... especially in some of the ‘action scenes’ (for want of a better term) towards the end of the picture. It also doesn’t oversell the emotion, instead counteracting it in some ways, almost to get the audience through some scenes which might otherwise have been a little oversold with the wrong musical approach. There’s also some nice use of camerawork towards the end, where the placement of the camera obscuring one of the characters with another standing in front of them, causes anxiety in an almost unbearably intense suspense sequence by a nice piece of misdirection which, actually, foreshadows to a degree, the very last shot of the movie. So that was nicely done.

Actually, my main piece of negative criticism also comes from this sequence which, I won’t spoil here but will say there are a couple of shots which I think should not have made it into the final cut. We don’t need to see ‘the things’ in question in what has so far been an incredibly subtle film in terms of manipulating audiences to the obvious conclusion. Sometimes, as is the case here, less would have been much more and I really could have done without actually seeing what is causing the strange events here. Now, it might have been that the internet station who are distributing the movie (and holding off from putting out a proper physical release) may have insisted on seeing the thing in question or it might directly be something which could be laid at the feet of the director, I don’t know. But it does kind of take the edge off of the last couple of minutes of the movie... which still has a perfect last shot relating to a story told to the film’s two main protagonists by an old lady in an earlier section of the film. It would have been much better left to the imagination of the audience I think but, I suspect there were commercial reasons necessitating the inclusion of a couple of ‘model shots’ so, I won’t complain too bitterly here, especially when the rest of The Vast Of Night is an absolutely brilliant and spellbinding experience which I think many students of film might want to take a look at. Certainly a movie I’d strongly recommend to just about everyone and I’m glad I was pointed towards this one.

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