There exists a wide range of adjectives between the pleasurable place of “thrill” and unpleasant extreme of “terrify” that one could apply to stimulating movie experiences. Just like the films themselves from indies to blockbusters, joys or jitters come in all shapes and sizes. For the festival darling The Vast of Night being streamed on Amazon Prime, the proverbial needle of its excitement amplification lands on a very nifty word: TINGLES.
Merriam-Webster defines both the verb and noun form of “tingle” as a “slight ringing, stinging, prickling, or thrilling sensation.” The keyword there is “slight.” Tingles sneak up on you. They don’t punch, stab, or explode. They merely poke and linger. Tingles occupy a tenuous yet inviting middle ground because they could apply to fascination or fear equally.
The high-minded and engrossing science fiction yarn of The Vast of Night is all about accomplishing perfectly pitched tingles. With its auditory menace, patient suspense, and mounting wonderment, its level of quickened heartbeat and tightened nerves are just right for its inventions and intentions. The laurels, nominations, and awards from the Independent Spirit Awards and Slamdance, Overlook, and Toronto International Film Festivals wave off any need for big names and wayward assumptions.
Framed as a Twilight Zone–like episode of “Paradox Theater” by rookie writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, the opening monologue narrates our slow zoom from a swanky, sunny living room into the vintage 1950s television screen where the nighttime setting expands in dimension and fleshed-out color. In the fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico, seemingly the whole town descends on the local fieldhouse for a high school basketball showdown. After a little tour of small-town personalities and pleasantries, a chipper duo peels away from the big game for their necessary place of employment.
One is Everett (Jake Horowtiz), the evening DJ for the local WOTW radio station (there’s a sly salute in those call letters). He’s a smooth-talking slinger of idioms and alliteration with a disarming line and a clever nickname for everyone he meets. Tagging along is the other, the young lady named Kay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) who is the late shift switchboard operator for the phone lines. She’s a spirited straight-arrow high schooler with an ambitious interest in science. Their professions make them (for their era) two tech-savvy cats.
Each of these emerging protagonists command a listening ear for a living as observant presences. Despite his gift of gab and her darling dither, both notice things with patience and stable nerves. Those traits lead to solid inquiry skills far ahead of others who would resort to panic or frenzy instead. If you’re used to movies where the confused make dumb choices just to advance a dangerous plot towards the danger, you will enjoy the gumption of The Vast of Night.
When Kay hears a strong and odd sound over the switchboard that interrupts Everett’s radio broadcast, it throws the two for a loop. When Everett publicizes the captured noise fishing for any listeners with more insight, he receives an on-air callback from a man named Billy (Bruce Davis) with an ominous personal account from his time working at a nearby military complex. His description of what he saw and heard give Everett and Fay cryptic pause. The reverberations of who could know more and what could happen next constrict the mystery more.
Escalation turns the earlier observational capacities into sterner words and more perilous actions. A jump has to be made. With the initial challenge of “if you’re going to do it, do it,” the crackerjack hometown heroes of Kay and Everett reach points where they can no longer care about getting in trouble. Risks have to be taken, and both Horowtiz and McCormick sell the smarts and surprises.
Throughout what transpires in The Vast of Night, ask yourself what it would take the pragmatic to go from thought to belief. Right alongside the risks, the logical Everett and sensible Kay are pushed beyond listening to heavier thinking. The secrets and absurdities they hear and witness which become more powerful and apparent morph both into true belief.
Every woven celluloid inch of this canny and calculating mind-boggler is varnished with staggering production value coming from a beguiling level of economical filmmaking. Each artist on this film outdid themselves to demonstrate how to do seemingly infinite with little. Filmed in a handful of small towns in East Texas and Oklahoma, the stylish and impeccable recreations of the period aesthetics, right down to the smallest props, from The Standoff at Sparrow Creek team of production designer Adam Dietrich, art director Jonathan Rudak, and property master Elliott Gilbert are functional and phenomenal. Any edges to hidden modernity underneath are seamless. When needed, the special effects of Chris A. Wilks and the captured sound work of designer Johnny Marshall and mixer Erik Duemig escalate the locations.
The surface is only the beginning to how remarkable The Vast of Night moves. Several long takes steered by debuting director Andrew Patterson and editor Junius Tully freeze our focus. Little breaks and transitions back to that wavy black-and-white TV resolution drop in to remind the frame of where this story is transpiring. Those holds relent only to have cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz (Resistance) hurl us through Cayuga with smooth approaches and trailing tracking shots of varying rapidity through lamplit streets, yards, windows, and more. The last pusher of pace is a bold and entrancing score from first-timers Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer. Let its noise lift the hairs and goosebumps just right.
Between the look, feel, and stunning execution of this narrative enigma, it all adds up, again, to tingles from a magnificent genuflection to so many genre inspirations. Those who think tingles are too faint and feeble compared to full-on shock and awe haven’t felt legitimately good and unforced tingles in a while. There’s something special to be said when less becomes so much more and telling the unknown outweighs showing it until the right moments.