Producers: Andrew Patterson, Melissa Kirkendall and Adam Dietrich   Director: Andrew Patterson   Screenplay: James Montague and Craig W. Sanger   Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Brandon Stewart, Kirk Griffith, Nika Sage McKenna and Brett Brock   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B+

It’s difficult to make a solid sci-fi film on a small budget, but Andrew Patterson and his cohorts, relying on mood rather than big-time effects, manage the trick with “The Vast of Night,” a small-town period piece that plays effectively on 1950s paranoid fears.  It juxtaposes two very different cinematic approaches—long, simply staged theatrical monologues and virtuoso tracking shots—to generate a creepy atmosphere that juices what is essentially a very simple “X-Files”-type “the truth is out there” story.

But the television program the screenplay specifically points to as its inspiration is “The Twilight Zone.”  The movie is presented as an episode of a fictional fifties series called “Paradox Theater,” introduced by a host who sounds suspiciously like Rod Serling.  A flickering black-and-white TV screen announcing the title morphs into the widescreen that Patterson and his cinematographer M.I. Littin Menz cannily employ except for those paradoxical interruptions.

They start out anxious to impress—and succeed in doing so—with a long tracking shot focusing on the story’s young Scully and Mulder.  She’s Fay (Sierra McCormick), a high school student who works as a telephone switchboard operator in Cayuga, New Mexico, and he’s Everett (Jake Horowitz), the night DJ at the town’s radio station.

They meet at the school gym where a basketball game is about to start.  As the camera follows him without a cut, Everett crosses the court where the teams are practicing and helps the gym staff set up the sound system before he hooks up with Fay, helps her take charge of a new tape recorder and walks her into the parking lot; they briefly talk with some of the fans arriving for the game before proceeding to their jobs, with the camera prowling after them as they talk along the way.  The sequence is an impressive technical accomplishment that might make you recall the way Brian De Palma opened “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Unlike that big-budget bomb, however, “Vast” doesn’t drop the ball after that opening salvo.  It continues with a sequence of Fay at work, snapping wires into the appropriate slots as she takes calls and sends them on to their destinations.  She’s taken aback, however, when a frightened woman calls in, saying that huge craft are hovering over her house, only to be quickly cut off.  Fay’s also confused about a strange, unidentifiable sound she hears on a line, and sends it on to Everett, who broadcasts it with the request that anybody who can identify it should call in.

That gets a response from a veteran named Billy (voiced, though never seen, by Bruce Davis), who says that he remembers hearing the sound when he was on active duty and summoned to participate in a secret mission: his quickly-assembled squad was flown out into the desert and instructed to bury what appeared to be a large airship.  As they dug a massive tunnel, he says, they heard the sound Everett had broadcast, and afterward many of the menthe men in the squad fell ill.

After Billy’s account is broadcast, a call comes in from elderly Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who has a story to tell about the sound and invites Everett and Fay to come to her house and hear it.  Her tale, told as a monologue as lengthy as Billy’s while the camera creeps slowly around the musty room, suggests that those craft flying around town have long been engaged in more than just observation and may not be of this earth.  Naturally it leads the intrepid duo to go off into the woods and seek them out.

There isn’t a great deal of surprise in “The Vast of Night,” and it lacks the smack-to-the-forehead twist that “The Twilight Zone” always favored (clearly “Paradox Theater” would have been an also-ran in that department), but Patterson teases a good deal of suspense out of the predictable plot.  McCormick and Horowitz make an engagingly naïve pair, in which Fay takes the lead, and Davis and Cronauer—the only other major players—etch incisive cameos of people on the emotional edge.

As good as the performances are, however, it’s the technical team that really shines here.  The remarkable work of Patterson and Menz in the opening tracking shot is seconded later on in the film, when the camera traverses a street, enters the gym parking lot, enters the building, proceeds through the basketball game action and climbs the bleachers to pass through a window before taking to the street again.  It’s a stunt that really serves no special function—though it might suggest how the town is being observed by unseen forces—but it’s another virtuoso bit that will undoubtedly spur the movie’s usefulness as a studio calling-card for both director and cameraman.

The other technical contributions are expert for such a mini-budgeted picture as well. Adam Dietrich’s somber production design convincingly captures the feel of a fifties small town at night , though a few outside locations don’t look quite right, and Junius Tully’s deliberate editing contributes to the overall mood.  Kudos are also due the imaginative score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer and David Rosenblad’s sound design, both of which complement the visuals effectively.

It might not be vast in scope, but this little film, with its echoes of the Roswell legends and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as well as “The Twilight Zone” and “The X-Files,” is a triumph of skill over resources.  One hesitates to overpraise “The Vast of Night” to avoid raising expectations too much, but the eerie exercise in otherworldly tension is a genuine find.  It’s no wonder Amazon scooped it up.