The retro ecstasy of The Vast of Night

vastThe Vast of Night is a glorious throwback to sci-fi of old; deliberately set in 1950s small-town America on the desert border with New Mexico, a setting which evokes all the paranoia of that period which informed all those old b-movies of alien menace and Russian Cold War threat. Taking place (almost in real-time, 1917-style) over one long night in a deserted town (the majority of the towns populace at the High School watching a basketball game) it promotes its low budget as its biggest asset- almost like a radio play, everything is suggested, never shown, characters recounting events like campfire horror tales, callers describing things over the telephone or to the radio show. Something is in the night sky, we are told, something unexplained and hidden. People are disappearing.

The retro styling is reinforced by the film being framed as a television programme: the film begins as a slow pull-in towards an old, 1950s-style CRT screen as it begins an episode of ‘Paradox Theatre‘, complete with a Twilight Zone-homage title sequence and Rod Serling narration. We are pulled into the b&w screen, and its grainy monochrome image only gradually resolves into a colour image, although it always maintains its grainy quality. Occasionally, the film fades to black, as if breaking for commercials/’a word from our sponsor!’ before resuming.

And yet, for all its 1950s-television sensibilities, the film does maintain some very impressive, modern twists: the opening sequence is one long single take (possibly a faux-single take, like those of 1917, I’m not sure- its tempting to guess where the cuts and joins might be) as the camera follows the main characters from High School gymnasium and halls, through car parks and streets, breathlessly trying to keep up with both their hurried stroll and their rapid-fire conversation. A later shot takes us all through the town in, again, one apparent single take, from the High School and the streets and backyards to the radio station, brilliantly establishing both the geography of the films setting and the emptiness and deserted feel of the characters milieu. It feels incredibly authentic: considering its very low budget, the film brilliantly evokes its period setting.

vast2It reminded me a little of John Carpenters The Fog, a film that also made its low budget its biggest asset,  particularly recalling that films opening campfire scene and John Houseman’s ghost story which so vividly established the films atmosphere and old-school credentials. Another similarity to The Fog is the use of the radio station and DJ as a central narrative device to move the mystery forward, and describe events rather than see them. The biggest similarity to this of course is Orson Welles’ radioplay of The War of the Worlds, which fooled many of its nation that its events were all real.  Suggestion is most always better than physically showing something in a horror film, a little at odds with how the genre gradually became increasingly graphic over the years, resorting to visual gory excess to shock. While The Vast of Night is perhaps more a cold war/paranoia sci-fi thriller rather than a horror film, it is (mostly) all suggestion, using many Twilight Zone-like tricks to let the viewer’s imagination to do most of the work.

I found it a refreshing approach and a nostalgic nod to all those b&w b-movies I watched and loved as a kid (as well as those tv shows The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits). Curiously, I can’t imagine the film coming out at a more timely moment than during this Covid19 crisis we are living in; the films sense of isolation and fear of the unseen being quite perfect for late-night viewing right now. In that sense, The Vast of Night is absolutely perfect.

The Vast of Night is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

3 thoughts on “The retro ecstasy of The Vast of Night

  1. Finally watched this last night and, sadly, was disappointed. I don’t know if I’d just let it get overhyped or wasn’t in the right mood or what, but I found it slow to the point of tedium. I didn’t care for the visual style either, which just seemed murky and hazy; though the movement of the camera was actually quite good, in particular that long shot where it flies across town. So much of the film screams “low budget” (not in a bad way), but all the stuff around the basketball game looks ‘expensive’ (loads of extra in period costume; rows and rows of period cars; etc).

    1. Yeah I think the hype works against the film, like it does many films, really. I think the positivity can be somewhat excused though because its no doubt rising from dissatisfaction with all the big blockbusters we’re inflicted with most of the time. For all the fuss made of Christopher Nolan, I’d like to see him given $2 or $3 million to make a movie and see how he gets by without the dazzle; likewise James Cameron too. I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot of big-name directors who rather hide behind the huge budgets afforded them, using the spectacle like smoke and mirrors: Dunkirk, for instance, wasn’t THAT good as a movie. As an ‘experience’, sure, it works but as a movie it just felt lacking.

      Dunkirk eh. How did I get there? I was writing about The Vast of Night…

  2. Pingback: The 2020 List: June – the ghost of 82

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