Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone set a near-impossible standard for anthology television. At its best, the show represented some of the best genre storytelling to come out of its time period, dexterously weaving social allegories and thrilling sci-fi world-building into a digestible half-hour package. Despite the current Peak TV era, not even horror wunderkind Jordan Peele could replicate Serling’s indelible success: after producing the third reboot for CBS All Access last year, the general reception was mostly half-hearted murmurs.
The Vast of Night, which hits Amazon Prime on May 29, captures the essence of classic Twilight Zone far more successfully than Peele’s forgettable 2019 revival — and that’s not just due to its small-town 1950s setting. First-time director Andrew Patterson (along with writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger) understands that a high-concept premise is fun and all, but the real pleasure comes from how the characters react to their terrifying new predicament.
Patterson takes his time revealing just what the predicament is, as the movie opens with a credits sequence for a show called Paradox Theater, complete with a Serling soundalike delivering an opening monologue. Cue the “episode” title, The Vast of Night, and the film switches to color and into the first of many lengthy, single-take shots — one that immerses us into a high-school basketball game where we meet the two protagonists, wise-cracking Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick).
The sci-fi bent comes into play when Fay and Everett pick up a bizarre frequency on the airwaves, and the more they discover about the origins of the sound, the more troubling its implications become. It’s pretty boilerplate as far as these premises go, but by this point, Patterson has already displayed plenty of impressive formal craft for a rookie. Montague and Sanger pepper their script with quick-witted verbose exchanges out of which McCormick and (especially) the fast-talking Horowitz make a field day. The dialogue is also filled with period-era slang that complements the camera’s film-grain look to create a vibe that’s fittingly pulpy.
The camerawork is the true standout here, and cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz employs several extended tracking shots that impress on a technical level but also serve a specific function. The film’s standout sequence involves a long take in which the camera lurks throughout the small town — diving out of a radio station window, hurtling down the streets, up the bleachers of a packed basketball stadium and back again. It’s a fun riff on the infamous tracking shot from Evil Dead II, implying there’s a malevolent force stalking the streets; that no one seems to notice anything indicates whatever that force is, it may be far beyond these townsfolk’s ability to understand.
All the camera trickery and the sparse musical score make for an effectively atmospheric first act. Unfortunately, the momentum often sputters, despite a slim 89-minute runtime. Much of the pacing issues are the result of a story too thin for anything beyond a TV episode. The script occasionally tries to draw up some parallels to the Cold War paranoia that permeated the time period, but they mostly amount to passing lines of dialogue. When the climax does finally hit, it’s no doubt gorgeous — a visual marvel on a miniscule budget. However, the conclusion drawn nevertheless feels obvious. Still, director Patterson and his writers are really onto something here, and The Vast of Night remains a worthy introduction to their talents.