The Vast of Night
Directed by Andrew Patterson ◆ Written by Andrew Patterson and Craig W. Sanger ◆ Produced by GED Cinema ◆ Distributed by Amazon Studios
Directed by Josephine Decker ◆ Written by Sarah Gubbins based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell ◆ Produced by Los Angeles Media Fund ◆ Distributed by Neon
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock ◆ Written by Thornton Wilder and Sally Benson ◆ Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
You won’t be able to avoid comparing Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night to Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds. That is by design. Much of the film’s account of an alien invasion takes place in a radio station with the call letters WOTW in glowing red neon above its roof. What’s more, its protagonist, played by Jake Horowitz, bears the name Everett Sloan, hearkening back to the actor who played a key role in Welles’ notorious 1938 radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ novel.
Just as Welles so often did, Patterson brazenly flouts expectations. There are almost no special effects or computerized graphics, which have long become de rigueur in science fiction films. Although we get glimpses of unidentified flying objects in the night sky over Cayuga, New Mexico, where the story supposedly takes place, we don’t see a single spindly appendaged Martian descend from one. The filmmakers seem to have wanted to flaunt their minuscule $700,000 budget.
The Sloan of Vast is a teenage radio broadcaster hosting a nightly show mixing popular music with call-in discussion. We first meet him through the medium of a television show called Paradox Theater, which is more than suspiciously similar to The Twilight Zone. It features its own version of Rod Serling hosting a story that seems to be the very film we’re watching, seemingly displayed on an heirloom black-and-white, 14-inch television set. This soon gives way to a full screen in a conventional movie theater of the 1950s. It’s a medium within a medium within a medium.
The plot begins to take shape when Everett’s 15-year-old friend Fay, who runs the town’s telephone switchboard, receives an odd electronic signal seemingly without meaning. She alerts Everett, who decides to play it on his show to see if anyone in his audience recognizes it. An ex-army soldier calls in to say it’s the sound he heard well over a decade ago when he and his platoon escorted a large box to the edge of a forest. Sloan is skeptical of the veteran’s story at first. But as the caller goes on, his voice and manner bestow a seeming authenticity on his account. The town is next to White Sands, New Mexico, after all, where strange things have been happening.
Soon the kids are running back and forth between the radio station, the telephone company, and their high school where a major basketball game is being played with most of the town’s 500 souls in attendance. As the film cuts from one location to the other, it enfolds its audience into its mystery so tightly that even when the screen goes completely dark for minutes at a time during a crucial sequence you find yourself compelled to stay tuned as the mystery of alien visitors is unraveled. The diminished visibility in this sequence pays off, suggesting as it does that we’re hearing an Old Time Radio story in the night.
Everett is the school’s electronics nerd, and Horowitz plays him as a sardonic skeptic, with the stump of a cigarette clamped between his lips. He’s usually immune to exaggeration and tall tales but as the film goes on he becomes increasingly enthralled with the prospect of an alien visitation. It could be the break he’s been waiting for: a major news story that might launch his future in broadcasting.
Fay, played with no-nonsense determination by Sierra McCormick, has purer motives. She merely wants to inform the townspeople that these visitors from the unknown may be plotting against the town. We watch her frantically run back and forth from her switchboard, the white blouse of her school uniform streaking through the night. She even picks up her infant niece from a babysitter and takes her along through the night to ensure she’s protected from the visitors.
The story recalls all those 1950s science fiction films starring Richard Carlson. Typically, he was called upon to alert the citizens of his hometown that the aliens had arrived and that they were cross as all get-out because of our reckless insistence on developing atomic weapons. These were films that used Cold War fear to generate audience attendance. As such, they also served as public service messages warning Americans about future threats that were sure to follow our continued fiddling with weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the familiarity of the story, director Patterson has found means to tell it anew. He’s inflected it with a startling urgency, exhibited in Fay’s tireless running through her town’s nighttime streets and Everett’s increasingly ominous speculations: at first, it’s the Russians, but then the evidence convinces him it must be extraterrestrials.
Given the film’s playful energy, its ending comes as a shock, about which I’ll say nothing here other than that it’s well worth waiting for. This is Patterson’s first feature film and it’s a winner.
Shirley also tells a story of aliens. But its aliens were real people living in the middle of the 20th century: story writer and novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband, literary scholar and professor Stanley Hyman.
Jackson was a talented writer and Hyman an insightful critic, but neither was entirely exceptional. Of course, once they had become ensconced at the highly fashionable Middlebury College in Vermont, their sense of self-worth became all but ungovernable. Still, they seemed to have had enough self-awareness to know that they weren’t able to live up to their reputations as superior souls. This, no doubt, left them more than mildly discouraged.
Most people who took an English course in college or high school have read Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery,” which dramatizes a sinister underside to small-town American life. It’s justifiably a staple in the curricula of freshmen literature courses. First published in The New Yorker, it gave Jackson an uncommon celebrity and the magazine reciprocated by publishing nearly all her subsequent stories.
I first encountered “The Lottery” via a televised dramatization in the early 1950s. I was seven years old and hadn’t a clue as to what the story was about before or after seeing it. I just knew it was like nothing else I had seen on TV. It depicted village farm people choosing paper lots in two stages. First, family-by-family to determine who would be the chosen one and then, as in the text, the individual members of the chosen family took slips of paper, one of which was marked portentously with a black dot. What happened next frightened me thoroughly.
Sarah Gubbins has adapted her screenplay from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novelized version of Jackson’s life, which plays fast and loose with the facts in order to turn her life into something like a gothic thriller decked out with lesbianism and alcoholism. The novel is so replete with misleading invention and pays such scant attention to the facts that it could well be accused of defamation of character. As with too many films purporting to convey the lives of their subjects, this one will unfortunately leave its audience with an entirely false sense of who and what Jackson was.
There’s another alien lurking in A Shadow of a Doubt, the 1943 film Alfred Hitchcock made just before his major work in the 1950s, including Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. Compared with them, Shadow seems a modest affair, and yet Hitchcock declared it his best work. This is not so surprising. His favorite ploy was plunging ordinary people into bizarre danger. This is what happens to the Newton family in Shadow. They live such ordinary lives in Santa Rosa, California, that their daughter Charlotte (Teresa Wright) complains bitterly of being bored beyond endurance. Enters the uncle, Charles Oakley, for an unexpected visit that dramatically changes everything. Oakley, played by Joseph Cotten, in perhaps his best role, seems dashing and wealthy. He lights up the stodgy Newton household and gives hope to Charlotte, who goes by the name Charlie in honor of her beloved uncle.
Of course, not all is as it seems. Step-by-step, it becomes apparent that Uncle Charlie is being pursued for murder and using the Newton household to hide from the authorities. As played by Cotten, Uncle Charlie is a seemingly successful man with a worldly charm that ingratiates him with everyone he meets. But there’s no mistaking that something is wrong. He exhibits a frightening cynicism about respectable widows, whom he bitterly describes as fat cows using their dead husbands’ wealth to keep themselves in jewelry and luxurious living. This callous judgment causes Charlie to see her uncle with different eyes. Something sinister has entered the placid Newton household.
As is often the case in Hitchcock’s work, there’s a fascinating balance between innocence and evil in this film, carried off with some extraordinary acting by Wright and the other players, principally Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers, who provide a chorus of easily duped naïfs unable to see the danger in their midst.