When we discuss supernatural thrillers in our modern age, we typically talk about the special effects, the chills coming from the ability to show the monster for what it is through camera ventriloquism, green-screen schemes to fabricate scares and making CGI the master of all things shocking and gothically grotesque.
But an ultra-low-budget film from 2019, The Vast of Night, shows us that the real thrills come from the mental squirms and mind tricks that a well-made movie can bring. This little movie that could comes from first-time director Andrew Patterson, a name to watch who raised funds for this journey by directing commercials and shorts for the basketball team Oklahoma City Thunder and others.
The movie, now playing on Amazon Prime Video, has been well-received by viewers since receiving accolades on the film festival circuit, including runner-up for the People's Choice Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. It is well worth the watch, an oddball movie with no budget and a no-name cast that is as smart as it is scary.
The movie starts with its protagonists, a mouthy radio DJ who talks in rat-a-tat patter (Jake Horowitz) and a telephone switchboard operator in cats-eye glasses and a curious disposition (Sierra McCormick) walking through a high-school gymnasium before a basketball game, circa 1951. The DJ, Everett, has the best lines, telling Faye in early '50s Beatster style not to "cramp the cool" and that she "sounds like a mouse being eaten by a possum."
But before we even get to their story, we, the audience, realize that we are being played. The film begins with music that sounds faintly like the concise notes and undercurrent of doom behind the music from the old "Twilight Show" TV show and a view of the proceedings through an old, oval-shaped TV screen, a Philco box that lets us in on a world we haven't seen. A Rod Serling surrogates informs us that "you are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadows."
Prepare to let yourself go and be wary of what lurks around the bend in the fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico. Cayuga happens to be name of Serling's production company, another nod to the master of early televised psychodrama.
Communications from the unknown provide a motif for the unsettled atmosphere. It seems that when Everett broadcasts a portion of his radio program, strange signals -- like a foghorn from the sky -- break up the airwaves. The young switchboard operator, Faye, notices the same low bleats and crackling hums on her lines, as callers are cut off and cannot be reconnected. The pair are isolated and unaware of the danger, as most of the town as at the big basketball game. They decide to play Hardy Kids and find out what the dickens is going on.
They get help from callers who share that these signals could be coming from an alien hovercraft that had previously entered the town environs and led to people going missing and presumed dead. Patterson based some of this on past UFO sightings in the early 1960s, as well as some of the alien-invasion flicks that causes audiences to flock to theaters in the 1950s.
Patterson provides an ode to those B movies of yesteryear by shooting his scenes in amber lighting, removing the viewer from the here and now as if they are analyzing a butterfly in a display bottle. He shows us inklings of something unnatural by way of long tracking shots; one in particular moves the camera through the small town, passing empty buildings and up and down the full aisles of the gymnasium where fans are unaware that they are being watched. He sometimes pans out to the TV screen as the scenes change, setting us up for the mayhem to come.
But this is quiet mayhem, not the explosiveness or the over-exaggerated climaxes typical of modern horror and action films. Instead, like other B movies where the climactic confrontations sometimes occur off-screen as a way to ramp up the sweat glands (and work better on a low budget), this is more of a psychological mind game.
There are undercurrents of commentary within this alien attack. It seems that the U.S. Army had quarantined other possible flying objects in the past and had used Black army soldiers -- purportedly less valuable than white infantrymen -- to tend to the saucers. Many came away from the experience with severe health issues caused by radioactive fallout, another '50s movie trope.
And the movie uses the idea that aliens also walk among us, put into a trance by the radio signals and poised to cause damage. One older lady visited by Everett and Faye tells them that these invaders are responsible for many of the maladies befalling mankind -- wars, disease and maybe even the disregarding of face masks (just kidding about the latter, of course).
Patterson's ingenious technique is the star of what could have have been a more formulaic approach and a more routine horror film. After chasing down the alien saucer, Everett and Faye are part of an ending that both shocks and leaves the audience wanting more. It's a perfect way to end a great, under-the-radar film that deserves to be seen.