A darling of last year's festival circuit, director Andrew Patterson's micro-budget science-fiction horror The Vast of Night is a rare thing - a much-whispered about debut that truly delivers.

The story unfolds over one night in 1950s America, with the plot centred on the tiny town of Cayuga, New Mexico.
We first see the town as home to that all-American staple, the high school basketball game - with the action framed by a Twilight Zone-style device, informing us that this is a tale and warning of mysteries beyond the realm of the known.

At the game, we meet Everett (Jake Horowitz), a motor-mouthed student and budding radio DJ, as well as Fay (Sierra McCormick), a 16-year-old switchboard operator, to whom he is showing the tricks of his desired trade, as they bond over their matching love of technology.

When Fay is plugged in at the switchboard, she hears a strange sound - part white noise, part Morse code.

After she informs Everett - like all precocious teenagers who hit upon a mystery - they investigate, broadcasting the sound across town and speaking to witnesses, including an anonymous caller to the station who forces them to consider the prospect of an alien invasion.

What sets The Vast of Night apart from most debut features or low-budget sci-fi yarns is Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz's virtuosity behind the camera - capturing the feeling that something worrying is in the air with one dazzling tracking shot that takes you through Cayuga.

Another beautifully executed, extended scene shows Fay at her switchboard, taking and making calls, inserting and pulling on wires, experiencing increasing alarm with each interjection.

The director also makes the most of his budget with cuts to black and claustrophobic interior shots, creating unease as in the best B-movie bone-chillers.

That is not to say McCormick and Horowitz are passive props for Patterson to whizz around showing us his skills as a filmmaker. Both young actors deliver affecting performances that give James Montague and Craig W. Sanger's script life and makes the movie more than an impressive technical feat.

Patterson's film is also inventive and affectionate in its nods to the genres and time period. There's something of Stranger Things' nostalgia, but with less of the knowing winks that show does when referencing the 1980s. It blends a bit of noir and shoestring horror, plus of course thematic invocations of the time's own obsession with alien invasion movies.

All this means that The Vast of Night is a unique debut feature with a real wow factor, and well worth any movie lover's time - even if it is slightly disappointing that the Covid-19 crisis means that, for now, it will only be available to see on the small screen.

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