[Screen It]


(2020) (Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz) (PG-13)

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Dramatic Sci-Fi Thriller: Two 1950s era teenagers try to get to the bottom of weird things happening one night in their small New Mexico town.

It's the 1950s and teenage deejay Everett Sloan (JAKE HOROWITZ) is sort of the local celebrity in the small New Mexico town of Cayuga. He can and does charm everyone, including high school student Fay Crocker (SIERRA McCORMICK) who works nights operating the local phone switchboard. On this particular evening, one line she answers features nothing but odd sounds, while another is garbled with a woman saying something about heading into her cellar. Perplexed but a bit concerned, she calls Everett to ask for his opinion and he decides to play the odd sounds on-air in hopes that someone might be able to say what they are.

It's not long before Billy (voice of BRUCE DAVIS) calls in from out of town, saying he heard them years ago while performing top-secret work for the U.S. government. His disclosure eventually leads the two teens to neighbor Mabel Blanche (GAIL CRONAUER) who tells them she can add to Billy's story, based on past events in her life. Not sure if either is credible witnesses but realizing something strange is happening that night, Fay and Everett try to get to the bottom of the mystery.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10

It's easy to look back over a successful filmmaker's career and state that you just knew they were going to be something way back when after seeing their first, feature-length film. It's another thing entirely to witness such a debut and proclaim in real-time that the director might just be the next big thing in Hollywood.

While I was too young at the time to go all Nostradamus on Steve Spielberg's future back when "Duel" came out, I clearly knew the world was in for something remarkable after watching Christopher Nolan's "Memento" (disclaimer, I don't count his 69-minute film, "Following" as falling into feature-length consideration).

There are plenty of others -- George Miller, Sam Mendes, Brad Bird, Quentin Tarantino, etc. -- as well as those who started with a bang but never met or exceeded those early lofty expectations, so guessing who's going to make it or not is usually a crapshoot. That said, and going out on a limb, I think we might be seeing future great things from filmmaker Andrew Patterson after watching his low-budget but mostly effective debut offering, "The Vast of Night."

Reportedly shot in just 17 days, it's a throwback to a headier era of sci-fi such as when "The Twilight Zone" was on TV, and that series certainly has an impact on this offering -- written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger -- that begins on an ancient black and white TV playing a TTZ type show called "Paradox Theater." Following a Rod Serling sort of narrated opening, the tale begins and escapes the confines of the small set where we find ourselves in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico sometime in the 1950s.

Most of the townsfolk are headed to the big high school basketball game, leaving teenage deejay Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) playing tunes for a small audience and 16-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) handling only a few calls as the nightshift switchboard operator. We first meet the two as the fast-talking and somewhat arrogant but smooth and charming Everett interacts with various locals before taking Fay under his wing to show her how to interview people on her new portable tape recorder.

Not much of plot substance occurs in those early moments, but McCormick and Horowitz create compelling and engaging characters and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz's camerawork and Patterson's sound team give every indication -- without being too showy and obnoxious - that something more is in store beyond all of the small talk (although it's a blast listening to the young science nerd ramble off all sorts of future tech inventions she's read about).

Then they're off to their respective places of work and Fay ends up patching in a call that features nothing more than odd noises. She checks with other operators in nearby towns who can't identify what that is, so after another call features a garbled woman's voice saying something about going into the cellar, Fay calls Everett to get his two pennies on the matter. Ever the pro to know that mystery can make for good radio, he plays the odd sounds over the air and asks if anyone can identify them.

By this point, the creative team's easygoing yet hypnotic storytelling approach had me entranced and I couldn't wait to see where things might be headed, especially with two new characters calling in to give their insight into the matter, resulting in some extended monologue moments. Mind you, neither are of the edge of your seat brilliance such as Quint's tale of surviving the bombing of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in "Jaws," but Patterson is smart enough to let the narratives play out without drowning them in visuals (he even lets the picture go pitch black at times to drive home that point).

The rest of the pic revolves around our two intrepid investigators trying to get to the bottom of what's occurring on that particular night in their particular town. If there's one drawback to the offering -- at least in the eyes and ears of this viewer -- it's the ending. Granted, it's not as much of a disappointment as occurred with "The Abyss" -- mainly because this is a first-time effort facing all sorts of budgetary restraints -- but it has that same sort of "is that the explanation" reaction that also bedeviled James Cameron's flick after such a brilliant set-up and path leading to that moment.

That said, this is still an impressive debut for Patterson who I'm going to predict is going to go on to much fame and success in the world of filmmaking should he choose to continue down that path. "The Vast of Night" proves the vast effectiveness of old school storytelling and thus rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 27, 2020 / Posted May 29, 2020

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