Review: ‘Bones and All,’ starring Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet and Mark Rylance

November 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in “Bones and All” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Bones and All”

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1988 to 1989, in various parts of the United States, the horror film “Bones and All” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After being abandoned by her single father, an 18-year-old loner who has a terrible secret (she’s a cannibal) becomes a nomad and falls in love with a young man who’s also a nomadic cannibal, and they go on a road trip where they feed their deadly desires.

Culture Audience: “Bones and All” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet; filmmaker Luca Guadagnino; and gruesome horror movies that know how to make people squirm.

Taylor Russell and Mark Rylance in “Bones and All” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Bones and All” is more than just a gory horror film about a cannibal couple. The movie also has clever social commentary about the pitfalls of judging people by outward appearances. Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet portray the attractive young couple at the center of the movie, but supporting actor Mark Rylance steals the show with a creepy performance as a middle-aged cannibal with a sinister obsession. Sensitive viewers, be warned: “Bones and All” is not a cute horror romance. This movie has very explicit scenes showing human cannibalism.

Directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, “Bones and All” is his first movie filmed in the United States. Chalamet and Guadagnino previously worked together in 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name,” starring Chalamet in his Oscar-nominated breakout role as a 17-year-old American in Italy who falls in love with a 24-year-old American man who works as a college teaching assistant. “Bones and All” is based on the 2015 novel by Camille DeAngelis. David Kajganich wrote the “Bones and All” adapted screenplay. “Bones and All” had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Italy, where Guadagnino won the festival prize for Best Director, while Russell won the Marcello Mastroianni Award, a prize given to emerging actors and actresses.

Taking place in 1988 and 1989, “Bones and All” begins in 1988, in an unnamed U.S. state. Shy and introverted 18-year-old Maren Yearly (played by Russell), who is in her last year of high school, has been invited to a slumber party by a fellow student named Sherry (played by Kendle Coffey), who is a popular student in the school. Maren doesn’t have any close friends at this school, so she’s very surprised by this invitation. Maren tells Sherry that Maren’s overprotective father won’t allow her to go this party, but Sherry suggests that Maren sneak out f Maren’s home at night.

Maren takes this advice and goes to the slumber party, where the female teenagers in attendance are curious to know more about Maren, who is fairly new to the area. Maren and her father Frank Yearly (played by André Holland) have moved around a lot, and they currently live in a trailer in the working-class/poor part of town. Maren recently moved to the area from “the Eastern shore.” She tells the other girls at the party that she doesn’t have any memories of her mother, who abandoned Maren and Frank when Maren was a very young child.

Maren has a big secret about herself that will soon be exposed: She has an intense craving to eat human flesh. The party starts off as festive and friendly. However, Maren’s urges take over, and she suddenly lunges at Sherry and bites off one of Sherry’s fingers. While Sherry and the other partygoers scream in horror, Maren runs back to her home in a panic.

As soon as Frank sees that Maren has come home in a distressed state of mind, he immediately figures out that she snuck out against his wishes and has revealed her cannibal ways. It’s only a matter of time before the police show up at their door. Maren tells Frank that she’s sorry, but he is visibly annoyed and doesn’t want to hear any excuses.

Maren and Frank quickly pack up what they can and leave that night, with no intention of ever going back. Frank and Maren hide out and stay at a motel in Maryland for a few days. It’s not the first time they’ve had to suddenly leave an area because of Maren’s cannibalism.

One morning, Maren wakes up in the motel room and finds out that her father has abandoned her. Frank has left a note saying that he can no longer be around her because he doesn’t know how to deal with her anymore. Frank has also left behind these items for Maren to keep: Maren’s birth certificate, some cash and an audio tape of Frank’s diary-like messages.

In his farewell note, Frank asks Maren to destroy the tape after she’s finished listening to it. In his audio recordings, which Maren plays throughout the movie, Frank tells Maren that when she was 3 years old, she killed her babysitter. Frank covered up that crime and many other cannibal-related crimes committed by Maren. He says after the babysitter’s murder, he changed the family’s surname.

Now completely on her own and homeless, Maren spends the majority of the story as a nomad. Maren is deeply ashamed of being a cannibal, but she also won’t ignore her cannibalistic urges. And now that Maren has her birth certificate, she’s determined to find her mother, whose name is Janelle Kerns (played by Chloë Sevigny).

One night, Maren is out on the street when she meets a soft-spoken, eccentric man named Sully (played by Rylance), who tells her that he’s a cannibal too. Sully says that he knew that Maren is a cannibal because cannibals can smell each other. He also tells Maren that he can tell that Maren has not eaten human flesh in months.

Sully, who is middle-aged and speaks in a Southern drawl, has a very unusual appearance of wearing long, braided hair and a fisherman’s vest. Later, viewers find out that Sully has a gruesome fascination with braided hair: After he eats a human, he takes the dead person’s hair, braids it, and keeps it in a collection.

Knowing that Maren is hungry for human flesh, Sully invites her to go with him to a house where a dying, elderly woman lives alone. Upstairs in her bedroom, the woman is barely conscious. Sully tells Maren that he found the woman in this condition. Sully convinces Maren that if they kill the woman, it will be a mercy killing. And you can imagine what happens next.

Sully tells her a few things about cannibal life that Maren did not know: He says that the most important rule is that cannibals should not eat other cannibals. Sully also warns Maren that her cravings for human flesh will increase as she gets older.

Sully lives in a small, unassuming house. He invites Maren to stay with him for as long as she wants. At first, Sully gives the impression that he wants be a protective father figure to Maren. But it soon becomes apparent that Sully is sexually attracted to Maren and will eventually expect them to be more than friends. Maren knows it too, which is why she secretly gets on a bus to leave the area without saying goodbye to Sully.

The bus is going to Minnesota. Maren’s plan is to eventually travel to Ohio, the state where Maren has her mother’s last-known address. Along the way, she meets another wayward cannibal named Lee (played by Chalamet), who’s a runaway in his late teens. He’s originally from Kentucky and has been living on his own since he was 17. Lee has a truck that he stole from one of his victims: a bachelor named Barry Cook from Centerville, Indiana. Lee invites Maren to travel with him, and they take turns driving.

Lee is not as conflicted as Maren about giving in to his cannibalistic urges. He also tells Maren that he prefers to kill someone who lives alone so he can steal that person’s car and other belongings. As if to justify his crimes, Lee says he usually chooses victims who do something awful to show Lee that these victims “deserve” to be killed.

Lee knew that murder victim Barry lived alone, so he and Maren go to Barry’s home to look for things to steal. Because the vehicles that Lee steals will eventually be reported stolen, he says that’s the motivation he needs to find and kill other people who have cars that he can steal. It’s a vicious cycle that puts Lee and Maren at great risk of getting caught.

Maren isn’t entirely comfortable with what Lee does, but she goes along with everything because she’s lonely and very attracted to him. Lee and Maren become friends and eventually lovers during their extended road trip. During this trip (which takes them to states such as Missouri and Iowa), Lee and Maren experience a lot of highs and lows.

Over time, Lee and Maren share some of their previous cannibal experiences. Lee says that his first cannibal victim as his babysitter. He remembers feeling a like a “superhero’ the first time that he killed and ate her. Maren shares an experience she had when she was 8 years old and went on a camping trip, where a boy was one of her victims.

A memorable part of the movie is when Lee and Maren encounter two other middle-aged cannibals named Jake (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and Brad (played by David Gordon Green). Over a campfire, Jake and Brad tell Lee and Maren that eating a body, “bones and all,” can give a cannibal an ecstatically powerful feeling like no other. Stuhlbarg, who co-starred with Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name,” has a much smaller role in “Bones and All,” but his screen time in the movie is still meaningful.

One of the most pivotal parts of “Bones and All” takes place at a carnival, where Lee decides to target a booth worker (played by Jake Horowitz), for reasons that are shown in the movie. This experience is a turning point, because it’s the first time that Maren sees firsthand what Lee is capable of doing. She has to decide if it’s worth staying with him, or if she should continue her journey on her own.

“Bones and All” has stellar acting and a few surprises that make this movie better than the average horror flick. Russell and Chalamet are believable as an emotionally damaged couple who find comfort with each other but are always on edge because of the terrible secrets that they have to keep. Lee and Maren make an interesting pair who are opposites in some ways. Maren is quiet and doesn’t like to call attention to herself, while talkative Lee (with his magenta-streaked hair) has a way about him that practically screams, “Look at me!”

Unlike Maren, whose parents abandoned her, Lee has chosen to abandon his family. Lee has a backstory involving his turbulent relationship with his younger sister Kayla (played by Anna Cobb), who has a lot of resentment toward Lee for leaving the family. Lee confides in Maren that he feels guilty about leaving Kayla behind when he had promised her that he would give her driving lessons.

Chalamet (who is one of the producers of “Bones and All”) is perfectly fine in the role of a troubled young rebel, but it’s the type of character that’s been seen and done in many other movies and TV shows. Russell has the more difficult role, since Maren is very guarded and insecure about her feelings and not a typical wisecracking or sweet ingenue character that would usually be the female love interest in this type of story. Russell capably expresses many emotions through facial expressions and body language because Maren is often afraid of saying what she’s thinking out loud.

And although Sully is not in most of “Bones and All,” his scenes in the movie are what might disturb people the most. Rylance is riveting as this utterly sleazy character, who deliberately disarms people into thinking that he’s just a harmless oddball. On a different level, Lee is a con artist too, because he presents himself as a down-on-his-luck charmer to his victims, who are fooled into thinking that he won’t hurt them.

“Bones and All” has a total running time of 130 minutes, which is a little long for a movie that could have easily been a little under two hours. Although a few scenes in “Bones and All” weren’t entirely necessary, the overall film will still leave a big impression on people. One of the movie’s biggest strengths is that it could have ended in many predictable ways, but it has a twist that many viewers won’t see coming. “Bones and All” goes down a path that will no doubt upset some viewers, but it’s bold enough to not take the easy way out in how to end this grisly and often-heartbreaking story.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Bones and All” in select U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022.

Review: ‘The Daphne Project,’ starring Zora Iman Crews

July 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Zora Iman Crews in “The Daphne Project” (Photo courtesy of Mailuki Films)

“The Daphne Project”

Directed by Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy film “The Daphne Project” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and one Asian) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An African American actress, who’s a self-proclaimed “social justice warrior,” aims to disrupt racism and sexism by joining the cast of an off-off Broadway production of Euripides’ tragedy “The Bacchae.”

Culture Audience: “The Daphne Project” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of mockumentary-styled movies and don’t mind watching movies that look amateurish and have lukewarm comedy.

Reed Lancaster and April Lavalle in “The Daphne Project” (Photo courtesy of Mailuki Films)

“The Daphne Project” might have been a well-intentioned satire of social justice warriors and performing arts cliques, but everything about this mockumentary looks like a substandard student film. The acting is terrible and just not funny. The last third of the movie really falls apart and has an ending that’s very phony. “The Daphne Project” could have been edgy and different, but ultimately it’s bland and predictable.

Written and directed by Zora Iman Crews and Alec Tibaldi, “The Daphne Project” (which takes place in New York City) starts with a very unique concept: An African American actress named Daphne Wilco (played by Crews), who’s a self-proclaimed “social justice warrior,” aims to disrupt racism and sexism by joining the cast of an off-off Broadway production of Euripides’ tragedy “The Bacchae” that will incorporate modern dance. Daphne, who is the only African American in this predominantly white cast, has an unnamed role as part of this ensemble. In this very small cast and crew (only about 10 people are shown in rehearsals), all of the people are in their 20s.

Viewers will learn almost nothing about Daphne’s backstory while watching “The Daphne Project,” which is thankfully only 66 minutes long. “The Daphne Project” has been listed in some places as being a 97-minute movie. And that might have been true when the movie was at some film festivals. However, “The Daphne Project” movie screener that was provided to the media to review has a total running time of 66 minutes.

“The Daphne Project” is really just a series of skits choppily edited together. For transitions between scenes, the movie uses a few generic shots of Times Square, as well as title cards with pretentious quotes. The first two-thirds of the movie have the repetition of Daphne—who thinks she’s brilliant, talented and an expert on political correctness—doing things to alienate her colleagues during rehearsals of “The Bacchae.” Almost the entire movie is set at the unnamed theater venue where “The Bacchae” rehearsals and live shows will take place.

In the beginning of “The Daphne Project,” Daphne is seen getting her makeup done at the theater, intercut with shots of her walking and dancing outside on the streets of New York City. Daphne talks to the camera to let people know that she’s been doing theater since she was a kid in Des Moines, Iowa. There’s no information on how long she’s been living in New York City, or if she’s ever done any shows in the New York theater scene before she was cast in “The Bacchae.”

Daphne brags, “I was once a Desdemona [a murdered character from William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’] that woke up. My ghost was running around the palace. It was a whole thing. I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it.” This is the type of flat remark that’s supposed to pass as “comedy” in “The Daphne Project.”

Daphne is apparently getting a documentary made about her experience doing “The Bacchae,” but don’t expect to get details on who these documentary filmmakers are. An unnamed male camera operator is heard talking to her in a scene, and that’s about it. Daphne also announces that she’s doing selfie filming with her phone for videos that she will be posting on her social media. Expect to see selfie videos of Daphne talking about herself in a narcissistic way.

Right from the beginning, “The Daphne Project” lets it be known that Daphne is extremely irritating. One of the movie’s earliest scenes takes place during “The Bacchae” production’s first table read, which is a gathering of cast members sitting together while reading dialogue from the script, with the project’s director and assistant director in attendance. Daphne says that she’s deliberately 20 minutes late for the first table read, so that she can stand out from everyone else and get them to wonder why her life is so busy that she showed up late.

Actually, it just makes Daphne look rude and unprofessional when she walks into the room with an entitled attitude about being tardy. She hastily adds in her on-camera monologue that she’s only late for the first day of rehearsals. “I don’t want anyone to think it’s a thing,” Daphne says. But she’s so tone-deaf that she doesn’t think about how being this late gives people a negative first impression of her.

The other people in this low-budget production of “The Bacchae” are:

  • Phineas Reeve (played by Reed Lancaster), a pompous Brit who is the director of “The Bacchae.”
  • Joanne Lundholm (played by April Lavalle), an insecure neophyte who is the assistant director of “The Bacchae.”
  • Dylan Horowitz (played by Duncan Menaker), the actor who has the role of Dionysus and who frequently mentions that Oscar-winning actress Diane Keaton is his aunt.
  • Carla Damiano (played by Annie-Sage Whitehurst), a snooty Brit who is part of “The Bacchae” ensemble in an unnamed role.
  • Vivian Mendoza (played by Geena Quintos), a conceited snob, who has an unnamed role in the ensemble and is the production’s dance captain.
  • Trish Ducat (played by Yael Rizowy), a hyper eccentric who has the role of Agave and who mentions that she’s obsessed with Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 1977 movie “Annie Hall.”

“The Daphne Project” is so poorly written, it never bothers to explain why no one has been cast as King Pentheus of Thebes, one of the central characters of “The Bacchae.” Agave is Pentheus’ mother. Expect to see a lot of embarrassing over-acting in and out of “The Bacchae” rehearsals, including “The Bacchae” cast members rolling around on the floor and shouting gibberish during rehearsals. They don’t look like they’re rehearsing a classic play. They look like they’re acting how people do at a pretentious cleansing retreat that gives psychedelic drugs as part of the “cleansing.”

Considering that Trish has a fascination with “Annie Hall,” and “Annie Hall” co-star Keaton is Dylan’s aunt, “The Daphne Project” could have mined that connection for some hilarious comedy. Instead, the only “joke” about “Annie Hall” that the movie can come up with is having Trish say this boring statement: “‘Annie Hall’ really changed my life. Like, what would Annie Hall do? When I’m having a really crummy day, I just put on a hat.”

Although the Annie Hall character did wear some hats, Annie Hall’s signature wardrobe choices were more about her wearing ties and vests. The Annie Hall “joke” in “The Daphne Project” doesn’t work very well with people who are unaware of the “Annie Hall” movie and title character. It doesn’t seem like the target audience for “The Daphne Project” would understand this so-called joke about “Annie Hall,” so it’s yet another questionable choice from “The Daphne Project” filmmakers. At any rate, the character of Trish is then essentially sidelined for the rest of “The Daphne Project.”

The movie then continues with a dull parade of buffoonery scenes where Daphne is every worst stereotype of a “social justice warrior.” When Phineas and Joanne see that Daphne has no talent and is very unprofessional, they try to fire her. But then, Daphne uses the race card and makes a thinly veiled threat that it wouldn’t look good if had this headline about this “Bacchae” production: “Black Actress Fired From an All-White Cast.”

Daphne also acts like she’s some kind of militant feminist attorney when she sees that Phineas and Joanne are more than just co-workers and have been dating each other in a consensual relationship. Phineas doesn’t want the relationship to be monogamous, and he convinces Joanne that she’s being old-fashioned and uptight if she wants monogamy. Daphne won’t mind her own business and bluntly approaches Joanne to ask if she’s been MeToo’ed in this relationship with Phineas. This scene is as unfunny as it sounds.

Meanwhile, Carla and Vivian, who are the “mean girls” of this production group, take pleasure in making Daphne feel like a social outcast. When the group members go to a bar for drinks together after rehearsals, they deliberately leave Daphne behind at the theater when they go to the bar. The next day, Carla and Vivian try to make Daphne feel like she missed out on a great event.

Daphne tries to act like this exclusion doesn’t bother her, but she sobs on camera when she’s by herself: “I just think sometimes when you’re really gifted, people are threatened by that. It’s not the first time it’s happened. It’s really hard being extraordinary.” By this point, viewers will have grown tired of the insufferable ego posturing of Daphne and her equally unlikable colleagues, so “The Daphne Project” quickly loses any appeal it was trying to have.

There’s also a dreadful scene where Vivian, who is of Filipino heritage, gets offended when Daphne describes herself as the only person of color in this theater group. Daphne further insults Vivian’s Asian racial identity by saying that Daphne is talking about dark skin tones when she means “person of color.” None of this is anywhere remotely amusing. It’s like watching stale jokes that would’ve been rejected by “In Living Color” back in the 1990s.

Through a series of circumstances, Dylan is no longer in the show. He’s replaced by Tyler Cody (played by Jake Horowitz), a hack actor/TV heartthrob starring on a quasi-reality show series called “Redondo Beach” on The CW network. “Redondo Beach” is described as a show about affluent young people. Daphne screams in disgust that this “Bacchae” production has hired a teen idol, not a “real actor,” for this role.

However, Daphne is so insecure, when she sees that Tyler has a personal assistant with him at rehearsals, Daphne decides she’s going to pretend to have her own personal assistant. She recruits a snippy friend named Laramie Tambling-Goggin (played by Ed Norwood), who’s originally from England, to fake being her personal assistant. Laramie tells the camera that he met Daphne a few years ago through a “RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] intensive.”

Of course, Daphne haughtily treats Laramie like a lowly servant. However, Laramie is the only person in the group who will stand up to Daphne and tell her what he thinks of her. He also exposes some of her lies. Laramie’s acidic comments are the closest that “The Daphne Project” comes to being funny, but Laramie’s arrival is so late in the movie, his presence can’t save this rambling mess.

For any mockumentary to work well, it has to have characters that viewers will be engaged in watching, even if those characters are supposed to be unlikable. When a mockumentary has too many forgettable characters or characters that don’t have compelling personalities, that mockumentary is already doomed to fail. Unfortunately, that’s a big problem with “The Daphne Project,” which makes the title character an overwhelming annoyance and everyone else just hollow, underdeveloped characters that buzz around her like pesky insects.

Another big flaw that some mockumentaries have is dialogue that looks too rehearsed. That’s why the best mockumentaries have dialogue that’s mostly improvised. All the cast members in “The Daphne Project” look like they’re reciting scripted lines and are trying too hard to be funny. It’s the opposite of what mockumentaries are supposed to look like.

“The Daphne Project” (which has some very uneven and distracting sound mixing) also seems very confused about what it wants to accomplish with the Daphne character. For most of the movie, Daphne is presented as an anti-hero whom audiences are supposed to love to hate. But then by the last third of the film, certain things happen that completely undermine those intentions and ruin the movie. It’s an abrupt switch that looks poorly conceived, very inauthentic and competely unearned.

“The Daphne Project” is writer/director Tibaldi’s second feature film and Crews’ first feature film as an actress, writer and director. Even though everything about this amateurish movie looks like something from a film school, you don’t have to go to film school to be a good filmmaker. However, the filmmakers of “The Daphne Project” would benefit from studying more closely the best movies in whatever genres interest them, because these filmmakers have got a lot to learn about filmmaking.

Mailuki Films released “The Daphne Project” in New York City on July 22, 2022. Fuse+ will premiere the movie on August 16, 2022.

Review: ‘The Vast of Night,’ starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“The Vast of Night”

Directed by Andrew Patterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1950s in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico, the sci-fi drama “The Vast of Night” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young people unexpectedly find out about mysterious UFO occurrences that appear to involve massive government conspiracies and cover-ups.

Culture Audience: “The Vast of Night” will appeal mostly to people who like movies that explore issues about life in outer space and what the U.S. government knows about it.

Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

People who don’t know anything about “The Vast of Night” before seeing this sci-fi drama will get some pretty obvious clues within the first 20 minutes of this slow-burn-to-intensity film that’s clearly been inspired by “The Twilight Zone.” Taking place in the 1950s, the movie is set entirely during one night in the fictional city of Cayuga, New Mexico, where some of the people have reported unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the sky during a night with a full moon.

There have also been some strange interruptions in the electrical lighting in certain buildings. “The Vast of Night”—directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger—takes a while to get the action going, but the last third of the film is worth sticking around for, as the movie deliberately builds up to a suspenseful pace.

The city of Cayuga in this movie at first appears to be the type of tranquil, middle-class suburb where the majority of the city residents will turn up for a Cayuga High School basketball game as a major social event. That’s what is going on in the beginning of the film, as viewers are introduced to Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ who goes by the on-air name “The Maverick” when he works at the local station.

Everett, who appears to be in his late teens or early 20s, has in his possession a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was a fancy new technology invention at the time. He’s making the rounds at the school’s gym during the pre-game practice to test out the recorder, which he plans to use to record the basketball game. Everett interviews people in the gym because he’s an aspiring investigative news journalist, but there’s also a sense that he wants to show off this recorder too.

Everett’s activity is briefly interrupted when he’s asked to help out some school administrators who have reported an electrical power problem in the room where the generators are stored. Apparently, the lights have been blinking off and on in certain parts of the school, and they don’t want any of these problems during the basketball game.

When Everett arrives, he finds out that there was an identity mix-up, and they wanted to send for a guy named Emmett (the school’s electrician), not Everett. The administrators mention that the electrical glitches are probably because of a small animal, such as a mouse or squirrel. As the movie continues, it seems like the only purpose of this scene is to establish that the town is having some unexplained electrical problems.

One of the people whom Everett encounters when he’s showing off his tape recorder is 16-year-old Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick), who’s fascinated and a little intimidated by this new technology. Fay and Everett aren’t close friends, and he treats her like an older brother who doesn’t want his younger sister tagging along. But tag along she does, as Sierra and Everett make their way into the school’s parking lot, where several families are in their cars, waiting to be let in for the basketball game. Everett goes from car to car to further test his new tape recorder.

Although the dialogue in “The Vast of Night” is spoken with a rapid-fire pace (in the manner that many American sci-fi/thriller films did back in the 1950s), the story unfolds in a leisurely manner in the beginning of the film. Not much happens in the first third of the movie, in order to create an atmosphere that this is supposed to be just a regular night in Cayuga, where the biggest thing going on is the basketball game.

Sierra and Everett aren’t staying at the basketball game because they have to work elsewhere. Everett is headed to the radio station, where he has a live broadcast for his music/talk show. Sierra is scheduled to work a shift alone as the city’s telephone switchboard operator.

Before they walk to their respective workplaces, Sierra and Everett have a lively discussion about some of the future technology that’s she’s read about in magazines like Modern Mechanics. She tells Everett that by the year 2000, there will be vacuum-tube transportation that can travel at incredible speed; phones that will look like tiny TVs; and lifelong telephone numbers as IDs that will be assigned to babies at birth, with the numbers disconnected upon death. Everett tells Sierra: “I believe the train tubes in the highways, but the tiny TV phones—that’s cuckoo.” (It’s the screenwriters’ obvious inside joke, since smartphones now exist.)

As soon as Sierra begins her switchboard operator shift, a few strange things start happening. She gets a call where all she hears is a repeated clicking-echo type of noise and nothing else. Then another call comes in, with a terrified woman saying that there appears to be a tornado coming toward her. A barking dog can be heard in the background, and then the caller is suddenly disconnected.

A concerned Sierra then calls a neighbor named Ethel to check on Sierra’s  pre-school-age sister Ethel and the babysitter Maddie, who are both home alone at Sierra’s house. Sierra has been listening to Everett’s radio show while she works. She hears the strange clicking sound at the beginning of the show’s news broadcast, so she calls Everett to ask him if he heard this strange noise too.

Everett didn’t hear it, but Sierra hooks him up to the phone line where he can hear it, and he records the noise. They both decide that Everett should play the noise on the air and ask listeners to call in and say if they recognize what this mysterious sound is.

A retired military man who identifies himself by the name Billy (played by Bruce Davis, in a voice role only) then calls in, and begins to tell a story live on the air. This story takes Everett and Sierra down a path of trying to uncover a mystery. Everett also gets a call from an elderly shut-in named Mabel Blanche (played by Gail Cronauer), who also has some information that’s part of the mystery, as the movie accelerates to a breakneck speed with a heart-pounding conclusion.

“The Vast of Night” uses a visual device of framing the story as if it’s an episode of a fictional show called “Paradox Theater” (an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone”), by having some scenes open with the action playing out on a  tiny, 1950s-style black-and-white TV.  The movie’s cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is infused with a lot of sepia tones that were common in movies of the 1950s, when color technology in films was still fairly new. And “The Vast of Night” also takes an unconventional approach by having the screen go completely dark during some suspenseful moments (one “blackout” scene lasts for about five minutes), which might give the viewers the impression that something is wrong with the screen or the movie’s playback.

Avid sci-fi fans will also notice some Easter eggs in “The Vast of Night,” such as Cayuga is the name of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s Cayuga Productions. And the radio station that Everett works at is WOTW, which is an acronym for “War of the Worlds,” even though radio and TV stations west of the Mississippi River are supposed to have call letters that start with the letter K.

The only real flaw of “The Vast of Night” (and it’s a fairly minor one) is that the movie never really feels like it takes place in New Mexico, because “The Vast of Night” was actually filmed in Texas with a cast of mostly Texans and Oklahomans who keep their heavy Southern accents in the film. It’s kind of distracting for the cast to have the wrong accents, but this discrepancy in regional accents doesn’t take away too much from this engaging story. “The Vast of Night” might not be completely original in its subject matter, and the acting is good (not great), but the way the story is told with some unique touches should please die-hard sci-fi fans.

Prime Video premiered “The Vast of Night” on May 29, 2020.

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