Somewhere Rod Serling is smiling. Nearly 61 years after the 1959 premiere of his classic sci-fi series The Twilight Zone comes a whip-smart movie that plays as if it could be one of show’s greatest episodes. A spooky mystery tale set in 1950s New Mexico, it makes a virtue out of its small budget, creating an eerie sense of paranoia and hair-raising thrills out of offbeat characters, ingenious use of a screen gone pitch-black (and held there), evocative sound design, and a portentous score.
It seems like just an ordinary Friday night in Cayuga, NM, for 16-year-old Fay (Sierra McCormick) and her DJ friend Everett (Jake Horowitz). It is the night of the high school basketball team’s biggest game of the season, an event that will draw in most of the town. But after visiting the gym to try to diagnose a problem with flickering lights and showing Fay how to use her new reel-to-reel tape recorder, he is off to his night shift at WOTW radio. Fay, too, has a job to go to, manning the town’s switchboard. But before long, a bizarre audio tone, disconnected phone calls, a mysterious caller to Everett’s show, sudden disappearances, and other intrusions into Cayuga’s normally mundane existence suggest something strange is afoot in the isolated town.
A central conceit of The Vast of Night is that what we are watching is a Twilight Zone-like TV show. At key moments within the narrative, the view switches to that of a 1950s living room where someone is watching the events in Cayuga unfold through snowy black-and-white images on a small television set. But when the image widens and the muted color comes back up, we are thrust again into Fay and Everett’s world, the normal rules of suspension of disbelief applying.
Fay is an earnest teenager, smart but already resigned to a dead-end life, telling Everett she has no plans for college because her family cannot afford it. Everett has the beat energy of a hipster, tempered by a certain earnestness. Together, they are Nancy Drew and a Hardy boy determined to get to unravel the cause behind the strange goings on around town. As they investigate clues, they are inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery.
Director Andrew Patterson’s debut ingeniously spins the yarn written by first-time scripters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Told in close to real time, during the span of that high school basketball game, and full of references to classic sci-fi, The Vast of Night exists in its own off-kilter world. Like the show that clearly inspired it, the film exists in “another dimension,” as Serling would have said, one that casts its dreamy spell not just on Fay and Everett but on anyone watching. –Pam Grady
The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime.