Friday, May 15, 2020

'Vast of Night' looks, sounds perfect for spooky drive-in or at-home viewing

So, what might Rod Serling, Orson Welles, old box radios, black and white television sets, and New Mexico all have in common?

Well, all proved themselves highly capable of producing some extraordinary stories, especially when it came to sightings and encounters with otherworldly situations. Now comes "The Vast of Night," from debut director Andrew Patterson, a man likely influenced by all of the above -- and very much more.

A disembodied Serling-sounding voice, in fact, introduces these "Vast" proceedings before a show called "Paradox Theater," a not-so distant cousin to Serling's own classic "Twilight Zone." That makes this week's "Paradox" episode a clever teleplay within Patterson's already cool movie, which expands from hazy blurs on the small screen to equally simple big screen effects.

Flickering lights, a few actual stretches of total darkness, conversation about squirrels, rats and owls biting through power lines, and even mention of some dog getting electrocuted occur easily in this tale of one strange night in '50s-era Cayuga, N.M.

It starts innocently enough, as smalltown basketball fans -- that means just about everyone in Cayuga-- slowly enter the high school gym to see the Statesmen squad play its opening game of the season against some big, tough cross-state rivals.

Radio host Horowitz and switchboard op McCormick listen for bumps in 'Night.'
Two who won't be watching, though, are kids named Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a chain-smoking technical whiz who closely resembles Robert Carradine in "Revenge of the Nerds," and cutely spunky Faye Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a gal with her eyes on the future. Each has a part-time job that people seem to know about: He's a nighttime radio host, and she's an evening phone operator whose genuine prowess on an old-fashioned switchboard becomes particularly memorable in one lengthy sequence.

Meanwhile, with first-time screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger dishing out distinctive dialogue, and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz sweeping his lens all over town,
the aforementioned Orson Welles influence has been slowly sneaking up on us.

Welles, if you don't know, gained much initial acclaim in radio, including as the popular voice of "The Shadow," but probably by most notably creating a "War of the Worlds" broadcast that freaked out much of America's East Coast one frightening night in 1938. In "Vast," Patterson hurls some similar vocal and sound vibes toward DJ Sloan at station "WOTW" (get it?) and town hall operator Crocker, as both get calls from scared listeners and citizens, respectively, about some bizarre things they've witnessed.

That's all the actual plot inferences you'll find here, but one more Welles connection: Though not a member of the "War of the Worlds" radio ensemble, longtime character actor Everette Sloane (yes, with the "e" on the end) not only shares a name with the radio expert in this film, but he also became one of the Welles' troupe of Mercury Players that went into the movies with "Citizen Kane." Perhaps not so ironically, Sloane also starred in a 1960 "Twilight Zone" episode that pitted him against a taunting slot machine.

Finally, after his superbly visual climax, there's a little something you might find interesting in Patterson's closing credits, too. Like, why does NBA superstar Kevin Durant earn special thanks? Is it because the director hails from Oklahoma City, where Durant played most of his career before high-priced free agency lured him away? Maybe only The Shadow knows but, by the looks of what he was able to do with a shoestring budget in this initial movie outing, certainly Patterson will be around long enough to answer that question some day.

For now, his current release seems like a perfect fit for drive-in movie theaters, which open this weekend in Ohio for the first time since that really scary pandemic began creeping into everyone's vocabulary and nightmares. At least three outdoor picture shows around the Cleveland/Akron area will be screening "The Vast of Night" before it starts streaming May 29 on Amazon Prime. Just keep the lights off, no matter where you watch it.

Rated "PG-13" (brief strong language); 1:31; $ $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

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