The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night had been on my to-watch list since it came out last year. I finally watched it Monday, early in the morning after my body decided three and a half hours of sleep was all I would get.

This movie was damn good.

These sorts of stories—stories with the feelings evoked by The Vast of Night—are usually pegged as horror movies. But most horror movies fail to deliver them well. Those movies are too caught up in the scare, in the burst of adrenaline and the heart-pumping thrill of being prey. Not so with The Vast of Night.

It is, at its heart, a mystery.

It’s about two young people, people who yearn for some way out of their small New Mexico town, discovering something odd and trying to chase down the truth behind it before it disappears. And it feels more like the slower paced, unsettling investigations sometimes found in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files than like any other horror movie I’ve seen in ages. I mean, damn, the movie even opens with an implied framing narrative as an episode of something like The Twilight Zone, right down to the Rod Serling-esque intro voiceover.

It’s been ages since I’ve been this captivated by watching people sit and talk to each other about things that aren’t happening on screen.

You may think that’s a joke, but seriously, I both loved it and didn’t understand it. Reflecting on the movie immediately after watching it, I couldn’t figure it out why I found that so rewarding. And yet, I did. Heck, there’s even the incredibly bold choice to simply hold on a black screen for a while, while we listen to someone speak, and it’s GOOD.

As you might expect from all that, this movie is low key. It’s grounded, both metaphorically and literally. The camera work very intentionally stays at or below shoulder height the vast majority of the time, leaving us just as stuck in this town as the main characters. There’s even a long low shot (that baffled me until I dug up more about it) which does an incredible job of tying the whole space of the town together.

There’s only one scene I can think of that really pulls out the stops and delivers the scares you might have expected from a movie listed as a sci-fi mystery thriller, and even then it’s incredibly subdued by thriller movie standards.

Instead, the movie hones its craft on a low-effects presentation that focuses more on the uncanny, the strange, and the wondrous, and it does this well. Extremely well.

A few other good notes that I must mention…

The sound design and music are great. I recommend watching the movie with a good sound system, or good set of headphones if you’re watching it alone. It’s worth it just to be sure you get all the details of everyone’s lines, all the richness of their voices.

And the consistent technical skill of the actors interacting with their props! That was really good. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but there’s something special for me about seeing characters on screen interacting with complicated machines in a way that brings both the machine and the character to life. That’s most true when the interactions are physical, and requires them to be internally consistent; that combination gives the character a feeling of expertise, and tells me more about them as a person. Part of what I appreciate about that internal consistency is that I know it’s not easy to create on set: you rarely get any of the feedback from a prop that you’d get from the actual device, so the appearance of fluid ease and competence (and the internal consistency of use that lets you learn how the machine works as they go) means that the actor put a lot of time into either learning the actual use of the machine or developing a legible acting language of use.

I could keep nerding about how much I like that for ages, but I’ll just say that it’s present in this movie and did a lot for my feeling of immersion and belief in the characters.

So. If you like investigative mysteries and the uncanny or strange, indulge yourself with The Vast of Night.

Fear and the Uncanny in Children’s Literature

This post’s delay brought to you by homework… and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Between the two, I entirely forgot about posting here yesterday.

My homework, by the way, involves rereading Parable of the Sower (and The Girl Who Owned A City, and The Summer Prince). My short end-of-term paper this semester is on the way in which fear and the uncanny are used to replicate the home-away-home structure of a children’s story (discussed by many people, though I’m mostly sourcing from Reimer in Keywords for Children’s Literature and Nodelman and Reimer in The Pleasures of Children’s Literature), without requiring a spatial journey. Essentially, I hypothesize that by using fear and the uncanny to create emotional distance from a space, the departure and return inherent in a home-away-home story can be emotional instead of spatial. Plus, you get some interesting dynamics where the protagonist tries to make an un-homelike space homelike (again, or maybe for the first time) instead of returning to a safe space that has remained safe the entire time. Oh, and I know that Parable of the Sower isn’t exactly a kids’ book, but it’s sometimes cross-shelved in YA and has a teenaged protagonist. So.

On the storytelling side of things, I’ve come up with an excellent conceit for an adventuring setting that allows you to go on dungeon crawls without having to twist yourself into pretzels trying to justify why there are so many monster-filled ruins all over the place. I won’t go into more detail here at present, because I want to write it up and submit it to Worlds Without Master. Maybe if I can’t get it published there I’ll put it up here.