The Vast of Night (2020), Lovecraft in the Twilight Zone

Did you like The Twilight Zone when you were a child? I don’t mean the Jordan Peele reboot, I don’t mean the Forest Whittaker reboot from the 2000s, I don’t mean the 80s reboot either. I mean the classic, Rod Serling show. I’m talking sitting with your folks at 12 years old in the middle of the night seeing a story about a child who threatens to send all the adults in the town to the imaginary cornfield. I have been haunted by the final image, just a silhouette of a man turned into a jack-in-the-box springing out into the shadows. One that’s stuck particularly in my memory is the story of a bookworm who survives a nuclear apocalypse and becomes the last man on earth. Delighted that he can now read uninterrupted, his glasses break… 

It’s this kind of cruel humor through simple twists of fate that defined my love of The Twilight Zone and probably fundamentally my storytelling sensibilities in my own writing going forward. Evidence of The Twilight Zone and its influence can be seen in everything from Goosebumps to Get Out. I just fucking love it. I am also clearly not the only one who loved it… 

Amazon original, The Vast of Night, is predominantly structured around a show called ‘Paradox Theatre’, a loving homage to The Twilight Zone and really the key to understanding the movie, as the whole movie seems to take place within a single episode of the show, the movie cutting back and forth between the events of the film happening in an episode of that TV show and them actually happening. This delightful sci-fi throwback is written and directed by Andrew Patterson, (his writing credit, pseudonymous), and it stars Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick as high school radio producers and switchboard operators respectively, (Sierra’s Fay doing her mother’s switchboard duties is endlessly endearing). The film opens with beautiful long takes, seeing Jake’s Everett rallying the troops to broadcast his school’s basketball game. This sets up the tone of the film beautifully, yes it’s throwback, yes it’s The Twilight Zone and creepy, but the fundamental joy of the film is the back and forth character dynamics between Everett and Fay. Due to the use of slow long takes as they go about their business it creates this interesting tone where tension is mainly built through great performances delivering great dialogue. Including a knuckle-eatingly tense scene involving a story being told over a switchboard. It’d’ve been so easy to cut back and forth but holding us there creates such an eerie tone, and it’s not a Cuaron thing where we feel trapped in the scene, it just makes us feel like we’re really there, seeing the mystery unfold with these characters and we’re just along for the ride. It also helps make these characters totally believable, that we see them just exist in their world, yes while the plot is unfolding, but the fact that we just sit with them without the cinematic bending of time and space that cinema does so well immerses us so completely, it’s like a good play. That being said, this is something of the cinema. A restraint in the employment of cinematic techniques is still a cinematic thing to do. This is still inherently of the language of the cinema. 

Do I have a complaint with the film? I suppose. The fact that the film invokes The Twilight Zone so heavily makes the eventual conclusion of the unfolding mystery slightly unsatisfying. When you set me up for a surprise revelation like that of The Twilight Zone and then you shoot for that kind of ending you really have to deliver and I don’t feel like the film does, if anything, it’s exactly the ending you expect. 

Despite that problem there are many small joys to be found along the way. I loved the stuff about the radio and switchboards and how contained all the action is. It really reminded me of a fantastic little horror movie called Pontypool that’s much too underseen and utterly fascinating. That joy of getting something you don’t quite understand at the other end of a phone line and you have no idea what it is, where it’s coming from, or what it’ll do. It’s a sensation that is at once immediately enticing, but somehow platonically salacious. I love the use of the show format, the Lovecraftian influence is only heightened by your understanding that these are characters, which you are totally being reminded of. You are reminded of their lack of autonomy in their lives in a very Lovecraftian way because you are constantly being reminded that there is a writer writing what these characters do, a puppet master, invisibly pulling the strings unnoticed. In this way the show suggests that being a creator is one of the most Lovecraftian and terrifying things you can be, every director is their own little Cthulhu. This is what I mean when I say that ‘Paradox Theatre’ is the key to understanding the show. One of the other great things The Vast of Night does with its The Twilight Zone inspiration, and also in kind of a Stephen King way, is that its abstract, Lovecraftian besties represent things. In the same way as Pennywise in It, or Barlow in Salem’s Lot, the aliens in this movie take a look at systemic oppression, which the film tackles head-on and smartly, and abstracts it. It takes our deepest fears that there is something deeply wrong that we can’t see and is bigger than all of us, (systemic oppression by governmental institutions, how appropriate), and reflects that fear back on us in its purest form. I do feel though now that, as a viewer, I am wise to this trick, I find such deep abstraction slightly unsatisfying? Like, with the Black Lives Matter protests happening as I write this, I appreciate the film’s message but, I kind of don’t want it to be shown as a giant beastie that tempts all humans to do bad things and not listen, it feels like it’s missing the point now, I want something more aggressive. I want something that confronts this head-on instead of using its metaphor to scapegoat, which I know the film is not intending to do but I can’t help but get that impression from the film. It’s not corruption, or racism, or structural injustice, it’s space aliens. It’s Satan tempting and corrupting all mankind to be bad, not that people are just inherently flawed beings. This is just bad timing on the film’s part. If it’d been released any other month I probably wouldn’t have felt this way about it. I still like it and I respect what it’s doing thematically and it’s stylistically gorgeous. I just have that little suspicion, nagging at the back of my head. 

Anyway, watch Jordan Peele’s Us. It’s great.

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