The Vast of Night (2019)

The Vast of Night is a film that went somewhat unnoticed since its release, on the Amazon Prime platform (is that why?) during 2019, but it certainly stands out for its cinematography, production design, and snappy narrative, despite the large amount of dialogue that makes it up. Within the narrative possibilities within the film genre, I believe that films like The Vast of Night (as well as Hereditary, a film we reviewed previously) fall into what I would call “punitive films”, I mean films where the protagonist has to pay a high price for his moral and psychological failures (as opposed to a normal film, where the protagonist ends up learning a lesson and overcoming the difficulties). In this sense, the film directed by Andrew Patterson follows the ancestral logic of “curiosity killed the cat”, with negative consequences for both the protagonist and his loved ones (John Truby would be proud of this story).

Okay but… What is “The Vast of Night” about? The story centers on one night in a small town in America during the 1950s. The main characters are, Everett Sloan, who is the local radio announcer and his friend (love interest?) Fay Crocker, a radio operator (she actually communicates phone calls). The thing is, Fay intercepts a strange sound that is sneaking in between the phone conversations, causing the communications to be cut off. The same strange sound is picked up on Everett’s radio transmission, which is why Fay decides to warn Everett about the noise. When Everett hears the strange noise, which is disrupting communications, he decides to record it and broadcast it on his radio program, with the intention of arousing the interest of someone who knows where the sound is coming from. This action prompts an ex-military man to contact the radio and deliver information about the sound, it is visitors from another world and they are in the sky over the town tonight. The news adds to a slew of people calling Fay, warning about something strange they’ve seen in the sky outside of town. Initially, Everett thinks it’s either Soviet Union planes or spy satellites, and it piques his interest, as he wants to become famous enough to leave town and pursue a radio career in California. It is for this reason that Everett embarks on a hunt for information, along with Fay (who wants to be with Everett and support him) that leads them to find a secret tape, to retransmit a message similar to the sound of the transmissions, to make “contact” thanks to the retransmission and then, inevitably, to learn the truth and to pay a high cost for their curiosity.

Beyond the science fiction aspects, which are interesting in themselves, I think the story rests mostly on both main characters, a duo that at times can remind us of a young Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (The X-Files), they show a similar couple dynamic, although Everett has less empathy for his partner than Mulder (at times his lack of concern is annoying), although he makes up for it in charisma and enthusiasm. This character arc is extremely interesting, especially as it takes place in the space of an hour and a half, which is the length of the film and also the actual time within the story, which occurs during a basketball game, where most of the people in town are gathered in one place. Everett starts the story as a kind of teacher for Fay, teaching him the art of being a radio announcer while they go around the basketball stadium interviewing people, then they head to town, which is practically deserted because of the basketball game and they say goodbye to each other to go to work. However, since Fay intercepts the strange noise, Everett appears again and again (each time worse and worse) as a person blinded by the desire to get an exclusive regardless of the consequences (which Fay asks about several times). During the midpoint of the story, which is when Everett rebroadcasts the signal and the aliens cut the power at the radio station (in what is clearly a warning of the danger of the whole thing), Everett reacts by grabbing a portable recorder and continues transmitting, leaving Fay behind and showing no concern for her or the situation. It is not until Everett and Fay interview Mrs. Blanche and get the truth about what is going on that Everett realizes the gravity of the events, although, by that point, he can no longer back off (in part because he has managed to bring more people into the affair) and this leads him to inevitably fall into the clutches of the aliens.

As I said before, the events that are recreated in the film are presented with a great emphasis on dialogue, it is a constant and frantic search (mostly because of the fear and strangeness of the situation) to know what is happening, for the opportunity presented to an ambitious but irresponsible character, to make contact with forces that are beyond the ordinary. I think the film is 80% expository dialogue, something that all screenwriting gurus have pointed out ad nauseam as an amateur mistake, but which here works to perfection. What does this tell us? Well, to me it means that the problem is not in writing or not writing expository dialogues, but that there are situations in which it works and situations in which it doesn’t work. I mean that there are types of information that can be interesting to hear in expository form, such as paranormal events that provoke the imagination, which is different from when a character tells us about something he has just done (explaining it), which is the most common way to use expository dialogue wrongly.

That’s all I’ll say about The Vast of Night, one of those films that stand out only for the masterful narrative work, in the dialogues full of sense and humanity, in solid performances that deliver all the necessary information, in the minimalist use of science fiction paraphernalia. The best, in my opinion, of the whole film appears in Everett’s character arc, a well-built character, with personal ambitions and a charismatic personality but full of flaws (mostly lack of empathy) that lead him straight into the trap of the antagonist and that, even worse, endangers a person who cares about him and a baby! Ohhh the humanity!

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary is the film that launched Ari Aster, director and screenwriter, to fame as one of the greatest current exponents of the horror genre and together with Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) marks the return of European culture to Hollywood. Along with this return of European culture to mainstream Hollywood, I feel that both directors also mark a return of magical and religious thinking (even reaching as far back as the Greek tragedies in the case of Lanthimos), in short, of the ancestral narrative that now appears as a refreshment in the face of so many “modern” films that have neither feet nor head, much less the mystique that can be extracted from the ancestral culture.

Well but… What is Hereditary about? Basically, it’s about a grandmother who was part of a satanic cult, worshippers of King Paimon (a demon of great power), they need Paimon’s soul to pass into a male body. However, this grandmother’s son commits suicide when they try to put the demon in him, so now she needs “new children”. In order to satisfy this need for a new child, the grandmother tries to take possession of her daughter Annie’s (the protagonist’s) first child, but she does not allow it. The guilt that comes from taking the grandmother away from her first child leads Annie to allow her to get close to her little daughter Charlie, who acquires Paimon when the grandmother dies. However, the problem persists, Paimon needs a male body and the only solution is to find a way for Annie’s first child to be possessed by the demon. It is then that, through the great guilt that Annie feels towards her son (whom she did not want to have) the dead grandmother and the members of the satanic sect manage to manipulate her to make this possession happen. But in between, a lot of events happen that put a lot of pressure on the protagonist and prevent her from seeing things as they really are until it is too late.

Annie’s character can be described as the artist who prefers to be alone to concentrate on her creations rather than worrying about her family, this is the main problem she faces, because for each negative event that happens in the story, she closes herself more and more, demonstrating again and again her inability to share with the rest of the family, especially with her husband. This defense mechanism that she demonstrates comes from her initial impulse, her desire to be free, which comes from having lived with a controlling and manipulative mother, but it leads her to assert guilt for all the harm she causes her loved ones. Worst of all, when she decides to talk to others, she does it in an aggressive and unempathetic way. Proof of this is in one of those tense scenes in the film (I know, there are a lot of them) where the husband prepares the meal so that everyone can gather to share, after Charlie’s unexpected death. Faced with Annie’s constant refusal to confront her son Peter, who is the accidental cause of his younger sister’s death, Peter forces her to say something, anything, and she responds aggressively, further alienating her son and losing her husband’s sympathy.

But let’s get to the horror, is this movie really scary? Well, it is difficult to answer that question. The first time I saw it, I feel that it caused a constant impression of discomfort in me, especially because of the soundtrack and some scenes that I found extremely tense, especially the one of Charlie’s death. What the film achieves masterfully is to build an atmosphere of constant danger, of always being closely watched. Some images achieved with beautiful cinematography manage to evoke a spiritual sensation that adds further tension to the events that are taking place. On top of all this, the acting of the main characters, especially Toni Collette (Annie) and Alex Wolf (Peter) keeps us anchored to reality for much of the story, especially when it comes to the reactions to the paranormal events that occur. And these paranormal events are also anchored to certain reactions to be expected in human beings when faced with situations of fear or great suggestion, such as the alert reactions to the environment that occur when the person is suggested about the existence of dangers that cannot be seen. Another thing is the iconography that is used in the film that subtly explains the influence and cult of this King Paimon, although obviously only a person with a high knowledge of demonology could recognize such symbols. For the rest of us mortals, I feel that the symbols used bring back memories of both movies like The Blair Witch Project (stick-built elements) and pagan culture (I know it’s a very broad term but I’m referring to European folkloric roots).

After this film, Ari Aster delved deeper into the idea of Scandinavian lore with Midsommar, which proves his broad influences and interest in European lore and pagan and ancestral religions. As a film, Hereditary is undoubtedly the best attempt at mainstream horror since perhaps “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and just like that film, it manages to build an atmosphere that supports the genre and really produces this sense of discomfort that leads you to think, to imagine, if all these demons and hellish creatures really exist. For that and for reconnecting with ancestral culture, I feel Hereditary is a film that is completely worth seeing.