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‘The Vast of Night’ is a cunning lo-fi sci-fi noir

Jake Coyle
The Associated Press

“The Vast of Night,” a micro-budget noir set in 1950s New Mexico, crackles with B-movie electricity.

The film is one of those little miracles: a directorial debut, made for nothing, that establishes a young filmmaker of self-evident command. With atmosphere and cunning, director Andrew Patterson steers “The Vast of Night” through the soft, shadowy night air of a small and quaint borderland town where unseen mysteries lurk.

The set-up may sound vaguely familiar, and it is. “The Vast of Night” is framed as an episode of “Paradox Theater,” a “Twilight Zone” knockoff that opens by warning the TV viewer: “You are entering the realm between the clandestine and the forgotten.”

But “The Vast of Night” is more than the pastiche it pretends to be, and it shows plenty of B-movie moves of its own. That made “The Vast of Night” a festival hit last year after it premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. Amazon subsequently picked it up and will begin streaming the film Friday. “The Vast of Night” has also already been playing at a handful of drive-ins, where its period setting and old-fashioned sci-fi intrigue make it very possibly the most drive-in-ready movie of the pandemic.

It also works just fine at home. The film takes place during the first high school basketball game of the season in Cayuga, New Mexico. The game has drawn most of the town’s 492 population to the gym, where the camera trails Everett (Jake Horowitz), a fast-talking student and radio DJ who already looks and sounds ready to join Edward R. Murrow at CBS.

He’s showing Fay (Sierra McCormick), a 16-year-old switchboard operator with a new audio recorder, some of the basics of reporting as they circle the gym and the already-bustling parking lot. They’re both bright, ambitious teenagers in dark-framed glasses. Fay excitedly recounts the future predictions of a magazine article that forecast “vacuum-tube transportation” and telephone numbers assigned at birth. While strolling on a quiet, dark lane beneath leafy trees and talking of a semi-true future, they seem momentarily out of time.

Science and technology hover around “The Vast of Night”; power outages at the school are rumored to be caused by squirrels eating the wires. And once Everett is at the radio station and Fay is plugged in at the switchboard, they hear a strange sound interrupting the transmission. Something, people are saying, is in the sky. Working from Fay’s recording, they quickly investigate with the guidance of an ominous caller. The secret seems to have only been glimpsed by witnesses that others have ignored — a black man, an old woman. “The Vast of Night” is, in a slinky way, about escaping small-town small-mindedness.

Patterson, who came up with the concept for James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s script, occasionally lets his camera prowl the Cayuga streets. He and the cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz conjure the feeling that something is indeed in the air — something that momentarily crosses with the frequency of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, before the signal cuts out.

“The Vast of Night,” an Amazon Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for brief strong language. Running time: 89 minutes. Three stars out of four.