There are supposedly about 330 drive-in movie theaters left in America, and some of them are seeing new life now because of the coronavirus. In case they’re interested, we’ve got the perfect double-feature available: Hulu’s ultimate-shaggy-dog-story Good Boy, and Amazon Prime Video’s keep-watching-the-skies flashback, The Vast of Night.
But if that’s not available to you, go ahead: Put them on back-to-back in your living room, throw in some popcorn and possibly a discarded garment or two, and relive those glorious days of 1957, but without the midnight curfew or the fear of encountering a renegade bra snap.
Both shows are linear descendants of 1950s B-movies or their close relative, television’s Twilight Zone, hitting their marks quickly and creepily, then topping them off with a surprise ironical twists much too delicious to permit any post-prandial-probing by surviving IQ points.
The more shuddery of the two is Good Boy, the newest episode of Hulu’s ongoing Into the Dark horror anthology, a kind of Old Yeller-in-reverse tale. Judy Greer (co-star of FX’s bittersweet crumbling-marriage sitcom Married) plays Maggie, the 2020 version of Mary Tyler Moore, an aging and thoroughly deperkified reporter-wannabe who fled Wisconsin for the glory of big-city journalism. Instead, she’s childless, boyfriendless and nearly paycheckless—her paper just went all-digital. “No one’s being laid off,” her smarmy editor assures the staff. “You’re become independent contractors!”
When a buddy suggests she might be a little less stressed out if she got an “emotional support dog” from the city pound, Maggie is skeptical. But it works! Maggie picks right up, partly because her new pet Reuben turns out to be “a total dick magnet,” as a friend observes, attracting suitors galore—and partly because the sources of her stress start disappearing, or killing themselves, or turning into the “after” photos in ads for Purina Wolf Chow.
Good Boy is well-served by the unlikely but undeniable chemistry between Greer and Chico, who plays her loyal canine pal Reuben. But a good deal of credit must also go to Steve Guttenberg, whose stunningly authentic performance as a toadying little wretch of a managing editor sets the gold standard for all future newspaper movie and TV shows. If Good Boy were real life, practically every newspaper reporter in America would be a suspect in his extremely satisfying demise.
If Good Boy often plays like a Twilight Zone episode, The Vast of Night practically shares its DNA. The setting for the show is the mythical town of Cayuga, New Mexico, and it’s no coincidence that “Cayuga” was the name of Rod Serling’s production company. And The Vast of Night is presented as an episode of a 1950s TV show called Paradox Theater, introduced by a Serlingesque baritone that warns: “You are entering the realm between the clandestine and the forgotten… .”
The tumbleweed-blown desert streets of Cayuga (population: 402) make a perfect setting for the eerie goings-on in The Vast of Night, which is set in the early 1950s before anal probes by space aliens became America’s national pastime. It’s the sort of nothing and nobody town where the time some years back when a squirrel (or, some passionately insist, a chipmunk) chewed through some basement wires and blacked out the high school gym has turned legend.
Tonight that same gym is the site for big basketball game with Hobbs, a couple of towns over, and nearly everybody is there. About the only two exceptions are a couple of nerdy teenagers with nightshift jobs: Everett (Jake Horowitz, Manifest), a motormouth deejay at the tiny local radio station, and Fay (Sierra McCormick, Supernatural), an operator at the town telephone switchboard. Not quite sweethearts, they like to share science-fictiony stories (Radio-controlled cars! Permanent phone numbers assigned at birth!) So when twilight falls and Cayuga is suddenly wrapped in a matrix of weird electronic noises, flashing lights and rooftop noises that definitely are not Santa’s reindeer, they’re the only ones to realize what must be cause: UFOs! (Though Everett holds out some forlorn hope that it’s merely a Soviet invasion: “This is exactly where they’d come in, too—the southern border!”
The increasingly strained phone conversations between Everett, trapped in his studio, and Fay, locked down at her switchboard, lend The Vast Of Night an impressively tense Sorry, Wrong Number atmosphere that belie the zero-dollar special effects for the low-budget production. If you’re looking for a movie where people say things like “There’s something in the sky!” and “I’ve seen good people go bad, and smart people go mad!”, you’re not likely to do better than The Vast of Night this summer. About the only people who walk away disappointed likely will be New Mexicans, disgruntled that their sunscorched little hellhole town had to be stunt-doubled for by some other pestilential dump in neighboring Texas, which steals everything. As the local saying goes, poor New Mexico, so far from God, so close to Texas.