Combustible Celluloid
With: Jake Horowitz, Sierra McCormick, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis
Written by: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 89
Date: 05/15/2020

The Vast of Night (2020)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Excite and Sound

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

During this time of sheltering-in-place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I have seen and reviewed over fifty digital movies since my last trip to an actual movie theater. Most of them have been pretty good, a few better than that, and occasionally, they have been awful. I sat down to The Vast of Night not knowing anything about it, and expecting it to be about the same as the rest. But after only a few minutes, I had a tingly feeling that I was seeing something special. And after 89 minutes, I was sure of it.

It's an incredible, mind-blowing, whirlwind micro-budget sci-fi movie, with innovative, exhilarating filmmaking, clever, spooky storytelling, and layers of relevant themes. This is a must-see.

In The Vast of Night, it's the 1950s in a small town in New Mexico, and fast-talking nerd Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) helps set up the sound equipment for the big high school basketball game before beginning his shift as a radio DJ. Fellow student Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) — who works as a telephone switchboard operator — walks a bit with him, enlisting his help in operating her new tape recorder.

At work, Fay hears a weird sound over the phone, and asks Everett for his opinion. He plays the sound on the air, and receives a call from an ex-military man named Billy (Bruce Davis), who claims he heard the same sound once before. He hints that something out of the ordinary is going on, and that there may be a tape at the home of Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), that will provide further clues. So Everett and Fay race there, where Mabel tells them a harrowing story. And time may be running short.

Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger and directed by Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night is inspired in part by The Twilight Zone, and even includes a Rod Serling-like opening narration, as well as certain shots presented as if on a badly-tuned, fuzzy black-and-white TV screen. Other scenes consist of astonishing, long traveling shots, filled with rapid-fire dialogue, or other long, deceptively complex takes simply resting on an actor's face, or pulse-pounding sequences of racing from one place to another, with time ticking away.

The technical prowess and utter creativity to suggest a sci-fi story using mainly sound and dialogue recalls other landmark debut movies, specifically Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, Joel and Ethan Coen's Blood Simple, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Darren Aronofsky's Pi, Christopher Nolan's Following, and Shane Carruth's Primer.

But the characters in The Vast of Night are also appealing and memorable. Everett is a rapid-patter, chain-smoking nerd, an outcast, but cool with that, and Fay is energetic and breathless, dreaming of her own bright future, even though — as a woman — her choices are limited. The movie even manages a subtle comment on race via the phone call by Billy, an African-American who is never seen. Smarts and technical wizardry aside, the movie also tells an amazing story, at just the right pace, with just the right punch.

Hidden even deeper in the film, there appear to be other themes about nuclear families, sound and vision (most of the characters wear glasses), and more. I can't wait to see it again, and do a little more digging into its wonders and mysteries. On May 15, 2020, it's playing in a handful of drive-in theaters (mostly on the East Coast and the South; see the official Facebook page for more details), and then it will drop on Amazon Prime on May 29, 2020.

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