When writer Howard Koch and director Orson Welles turned H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds into an immersive “live” radio experience for The Mercury Theatre of the Air in 1938, they uncovered a durable truth about alien-invasion stories. The subgenre seems to attain a more striking emotional and thematic resonance when the window into the extraterrestrial crisis is relatively narrow. To be sure, the raw cinematic spectacle of hostile spacecraft descending on Washington, D.C. (or just blowing it the hell up) has been successfully exploited in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Independence Day (1996). That said, it’s often less compelling to see such events unfold from the privileged viewpoint of military officers and government scientists than through the eyes of everyday people, whose responses invariably reflect a more accessible mixture of awe and terror. It’s an approach that has been employed to potent effect in classics like Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Day of the Triffids (1962), as well as more contemporary feature such as Signs (2002) and Attack the Block (2011). (Not to mention Steven Spielberg’s still-underrated 2005 adaptation of War of the Worlds.)

Director Andrew Patterson’s captivating micro-budget debut, The Vast of Night, is an alien-invasion picture in this latter tradition. It also represents a bridge of sorts between past and present, for although the film is set in the 1950s, its style is 21st-century indie through and through. In the film’s prelude, cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz’s camera pushes in on a vintage black-and-white television screen, eventually passing through the glass barrier and into a Twilight Zone-like program titled Paradox Theater. This show-within-a-film framing device never amounts to much in practice, but it does highlight that The Vast of Night is not a straight period piece but a facsimile of a facsimile, one more indebted to the fantasies of American Graffiti and The Outer Limits than to historical reality. Much like David Lynch, the filmmakers are absorbed with the collective dream that has been constructed around small-town, Eisenhower-era America – and its genre-cinema variations.

In the small, sleepy town of Cayuga, N.M., the local high-school basketball team prepares to square off against their regional rivals. Virtually the entire population of the town has gathered at the school gymnasium, which means that it will be a slow night for two unlikely friends: local radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and teenage switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick). Patterson’s film takes its time positioning these two characters as its co-protagonists, however. In a series of long takes, the camera glides into and then through the bustling gymnasium just before the big game. The scene follows Everett as he greets friends and colleagues, everyone talking and moving a mile a minute, as though energized by the anticipation in the air. Eventually he rendezvous with Kay, and the two depart the high school together, walking back through the town and bantering before splitting up for their respective night shifts – he to the glorified shack that hosts the studio and tower for low-wattage station WOTW, she to the one-woman telephone switchboard just off the town’s presently deserted main street.

This mesmerizing opening passage – a skillfully choreographed “walk and talk” sequence with only a few hidden edits – runs a full 18 minutes before Fay clocks in, sits down, and adjusts her headset. In all that time, there is nary a mention of flying saucers or government cover-ups, but everything the viewer needs to know about the film’s protagonists and their determinedly ordinary little town has been conveyed. It’s a showy way to open a film, to be sure, and like some of the more attention-grabbing stylistic flourishes in The Vast of Night, it feels a bit like a first-time filmmaker’s artistic flex rather than a story-driven choice. However, this opening scene handily illustrates Patterson’s creative ambition and squeeze-every-penny efficiency, conjuring as it does a vivid, cohesive setting and a pair of charismatic, well-rounded characters.

Cayuga is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, and Everett takes this familiarity to another level, offering breezy advice, acerbic wisecracks, and muttered asides to seemingly everyone he passes. He appears to be a well-liked local celebrity and valued jack-of-all-trades – every other person he encounters seems to want a favor – but he also radiates the above-it-all smugness of the proverbial big fish in a little pond. Horowitz plays him like a reedy Matthew McConaughey, his cool-as-a-cucumber attitude only sort-of masking his lightning intellect and faint contempt for his provincial surroundings.

The only townsperson whom he seems to regard as a near-equal is Fay, who is similarly bright and quick-witted, but at 16 years of age has not yet acquired his streak of sardonic cynicism. She is all breathless questions and gee-whiz enthusiasm, coaxing Everett to test her new portable tape recorder and then regaling him with the futurist marvels she has read about in science magazines. This being the 1950s, Everett can’t resist patronizing Fay a little, but he listens with sincere interest as she eagerly describes self-driving cars, bullet trains, and other wonders of tomorrow. Horowitz and McCormick have undeniable chemistry, and although it’s slightly creepy from the vantage point of 2020 for an adult man to be spending so much time with a high-school girl, Everett and Fay’s relationship seems to be strictly that of a mentor and protégé.

James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s dense, winding screenplay draws heavily from the Aaron Sorkin model, with rapid-fire exposition and relentless cross-talk, especially during this extended opening sequence. The writers also add a thick slathering of 1950s teen slang and hepcat lingo to their dialogue, giving every line an agreeably snappy, ever-so-slightly oddball feel. Whether this vernacular is period-accurate is questionable, but The Vast of Night is more concerned with evoking the pop-culture-mitigated feeling of a time and place than reality. Like the weird turns of phrase spat out by the leather-clad delinquents in midcentury “rebel teen” exploitation flicks, the film’s dialogue has a hyper-real quality that lends the film an unruly, hormonal energy.

Patterson’s feature is the sort of indie genre film that slow-rolls its premise and plays things somewhat coy, taking care to avoid words such as “alien” and “UFO.” It’s not until Fay settles in at her switchboard that the paranormal weirdness begins to make its presence known, manifesting as a strange electronic sound that distorts Everett’s radio show and interrupts incoming phone calls. In short order, Fay and Everett find themselves in the middle of an increasingly unsettling mystery, one that plays out primarily through phone calls and recorded conversations. On paper, The Vast of Night flagrantly violates several allegedly ironclad screenwriting rules – “Avoid Long Monologues” and “Show, Don’t Tell” among them – but Patterson and his collaborators achieve such a forceful effect through these transgressions, it hardly matters. Some of the feature’s most spine-tingling scenes consist of little more than a character telling an anecdote. This is a film that understands and adeptly employs the dramatic power of the spoken word, compelling the listener to lean forward as an astonishing tale of terror unfolds.

The Vast of Night has some similarities to Bruce McDonald’s innovative 2008 horror-thriller Pontypool, which follows a bizarre species of zombie outbreak from the perspective of a radio shock jock. Like that film, Patterson’s feature forces its protagonists to bear witness to a catastrophic event through the filter of audio technology. Here, however, the setting lacks the single-location claustrophobia of McDonald’s film. Instead, The Vast of Night often underlines the characters’ vulnerability and exposure, as though a threat could burst through the door, slip through the window, or descend from the sky at any moment. Everett and Fay are not trapped so much as stranded in a ghost town. In one particularly flamboyant shot, Littin-Menz’s camera whizzes through the town’s eerily deserted nocturnal streets, frenetically sketching the geographic relationship between the switchboard, radio station, and packed high-school gymnasium.

Patterson has trouble resisting this impulse to show off, whether it be with cinematographic stunts, puzzling stylistic tics, or abrupt shifts to fuzzy, black-and-white imagery – as if to remind the viewer of the Paradox Theater framing device. None of this seriously detracts from the film’s formidable, skin-crawling atmosphere, but it does result in a feature that occasionally feels more eccentric than inventive. Indeed, the story doesn’t go anywhere particularly surprising or introduce any components that would be unfamiliar to a moderate-to-serious The X-Files enthusiast. What is distinctive about The Vast of Night is how it spins its story. Patterson works his Atomic Age magic slowly, slipping familiar genre components – unexplained lights in the sky, weird electronic signals, secret government programs – into the fissures of his broadly nostalgic tale. Within this story of small-town life, postwar prosperity, and rosy-cheeked dreams, there is another story, one that pulses with racism, sexism, and small-minded paranoia. Eventually, the edifice of the film cracks and crumbles entirely, revealing the chilling sci-fi horror fable that was there all along, like the age-old dehumanizing rot underneath the setting’s Norman Rockwell veneer.

Grade: B

The Vast of Night is now available to stream from Amazon Prime.