Contrast between the familiar and the otherworldly, between visual and aural imagery, colors The Vast of Night. At first blush, Andrew Patterson’s debut feature appears as a straightforward story about late ‘50s-era flying saucers. It opens by explicitly aping “The Twilight Zone,” bookended with stylized black and white sequences dubbed “Paradox Theater,” complete with spot-on mimicking of Rod Serling’s distinctive narration. Meanwhile, malevolent threats lurking under an idyllic small-town Americana veneer feels Lynchian in its own right, and that’s before the dim lighting and uncanny atmospherics kick in. And yet, as reels of analog tape, radio transmitters, telephone switchboards and other relics of mid-20th-century telecommunication jut up against strange frequencies from “the people in the sky,” the whole of what Patterson presents here transcends the sum of its parts largely due to technical proficiency and a focus on good, old-fashioned storytelling.

Early on, local hotshot radio disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) strides through a gymnasium full of folks preparing for a big high-school basketball game like he’s Rushmore’s Max Fischer multitasking at a dress rehearsal. The scene is kinetic, nearly chaotic, the squeak of sneakers peppered over the dialogue. Soon, Everett connects with 16-year-old switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), who wants to show off her new tape recorder, quite a prize in 1957. At this point, despite that expansive opening scene, the viewer is thrust into intimate storytelling that largely involves just these two characters unraveling a mystery. When Fay is back at the switchboard, a creepy oscillating frequency comes through one of the lines, and soon Everett’s broadcasting it out to the few denizens not congregated at the big game in an attempt to see if anyone knows what such a strange sound might be. Regardless of what may happen, as Everett tells Fay, “this is good radio.”

As we move deeper into the film, Patterson grows ever more focused on verbal storytelling. The fact that the film is set in New Mexico should leave little doubt as to the source of the noise, and yet the eerie story told by local caller Bill (voiced by Bruce Davis) feels gripping in its authenticity. Large stretches of the film present little more than Everett and Fay sitting at their respective stations, captive audiences to the tale of an extraterrestrial encounter told by a former military man. Later, the pair interview an elderly woman named Mabel (Gail Cronauer) at her home, as she relays a decades-old account of the alien abduction of her young son, with Patterson again presenting little more than the words spoken by the storyteller. At one point, he even completely fades the screen to black to hammer home just how compelling the lost art of a “War of the Worlds”-adjacent broadcast can be in an era of CGI candy.

At other times, Patterson swerves to the visual again, especially in one impossibly long tracking shot presumably from the POV of an extraterrestrial consciousness that swiftly moves throughout the town like something out of a less frenzied The Evil Dead. At times, these sorts of sequences can border on showboating, or at least pretentiousness. Elsewhere, we get what amounts to analog technology fetishization, particularly in one scene where Everett quickly spools one cumbersome reel of archival audio tape after another onto a player as he searches for a similar sound. And yet, impossibly, The Vast of Night avoids falling into mere pastiche, instead polishing its myriad well-worn elements until they collectively reveal new layers underneath.

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