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‘Vast’ haunts with mood, atmosphere

The drive-in might be the perfect place to see “The Vast of Night.”

Andrew Patterson’s debut film is inspired by the low-budget sci-fi stories of alien invasion that filled outdoor screens in the late ’50s.

Amazon purchased the distribution rights to the movie after it won the audience award at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. It will debut May 29 on Amazon Prime, but the company decided to take advantage of drive-ins being the only theaters open in most of the country by premiering “Vast” on Friday at 18 outdoor theaters, including Warren’s Elm Road Drive-In.

It may owe a debt to vintage sci-fi (and “The Twilight Zone”), but there are no easy jump scares or rubber-costumed “creatures” terrorizing people. “Vast” is an exercise in perfectly modulated mood and atmosphere from a director with supreme confidence that he can hold an audience’s attention without any of those gimmicks.

The story is set in Cayuga, N.M. (Cayuga was the name of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s production company). Most of the town is gathered at the high school gym while Everett (Jake Horowitz) is heading to his job as a night-time DJ at WOTW-AM and teenager Fay (Sierra McCormick) is going to her job as a telephone operator.

Fay hears a strange frequency over the phone lines that also interrupts Everett’s broadcast. Everett replays the sound over the air, which sends the pair on an investigation that includes a mysterious caller (Bruce Davis) with ominous stories of his time in the military and an elderly shut-in (Gail Cronauer) with her own tale to tell.

The screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger has the story unfold in real time in less than 90 minutes. It’s built around several static set pieces — a whirlwind of activity behind the switchboard when Fay first hears the strange sound and calls Everett for help in figuring out what it is, a long radio interview with that unseen caller, the conversation with the elderly woman.

In those scenes that unfold like an old radio drama, Patterson finds visual tricks to pull the viewer into the action. The scene with Fay at the switchboard is one continuous shot, making the audience feel her growing anxiety.

At one point during the radio interview, the screen goes black for several minutes, putting all of the emphasis on the words being spoken.

Those static moments are connected with some dazzling camera work (the cinematographer is M.I. Litten-Menz). A ground-level tracking shot from behind follows Everett and Fay as they walk to their jobs and discuss scientific advancements (to two young people in the 1950s, tubes that allow people to travel cross country in an hour seem more plausible than handheld video phones that people carry everywhere).

Another tracking shot winds through the parking lot of the high school, into the gymnasium and weaves through the spectators.

For a first-time filmmaker, Patterson has an impressive command of the medium. At times watching “The Vast of Night” reminded me of watching the Coen brothers’ feature debut “Blood Simple” 35 years ago. My guess is the Oklahoma filmmaker already is fielding studio offers for his next film.

He also gets strong performances from his cast. Horowitz, a theater actor in one of his first screen roles, speaks in the rapid-fire cadence and hipster lingo of the DJs he’s grown up listening to, but the facade starts to fade as he gets more entangled in what they uncover. McCormick is thoroughly convincing as a ’50s teen, a girl with a curiosity for science but whose dreams are limited by the meager options available to a young woman in the southwest 60 years ago.

If there’s a problem with “Vast,” it’s that the story itself feels overly familiar. For a movie that clearly worships “The Twilight Zone” (there are scene transitions that make the story look like it’s a “Zone”-ish black-and-white television show called “Paradox Theater”), it lacks a final act twist or surprise.

It’s not a fatal flaw for those willing to embrace its stylish look and creative storytelling. However, those raised on Blumhouse horror movies and the latest computer-generated effects may be bored to tears. But the night — and the movies — are vast. There’s room for both.

Review

WHAT: “The Vast of Night”

STARS: Jake Horowitz, Sierra McCormick, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis.

STORYLINE: A late night DJ and a young telephone operator in a small New Mexico town go on an investigation after hearing a strange frequency.

DIRECTOR: Andrew Patterson

RATING: PG-13 for brief strong language

GRADE: B

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