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Vacancy

No Exit

Directed by Nimród Antal (Kontroll) and written by Mark L. Smith (Séance), Vacancy is a slickly accomplished, gripping horror/suspense/thriller about stranded motorists fighting for their lives against killers who get their kicks by re-watching the murders on videotape.

Vacancy doesn’t have much in the way of originality to recommend it, but it does have a several non-standard plot elements that horror enthusiasts can and should appreciate (but most mainstream audiences won’t even notice), an above-average cast delivering perfectly credible performances, and a level of sustained suspense and scares rarely found in the genre (minus a weak ending, unfortunately).

On the verge of ending their marriage, Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David Fox (Luke Wilson) can barely tolerate each other. Amy has retreated into a haze of prescription meds and passive-aggressive behavior. David’s short temper doesn’t help ease the drive home. Driving back from an anniversary party for Amy’s parents, David decides to circumvent a highway accident by taking a more scenic route.

Amy awakens three hours later when David swerves to avoid hitting a raccoon crossing the road. Amy and David realize they're lost. Amy and David stop at a roadside gas station for directions and to have someone look at the engine, which has just begun to make a strange ticking sound. Two miles down the road, their car breaks down. Amy and David can either stay in the car for the night or walk back to the gas station.

With the mechanic gone and nothing else available, Amy and David decide to spend the night at the only motel in the vicinity. The seemingly innocuous, mild-mannered night manager, Mason (Frank Whaley), gives them the “honeymoon” suite for the night. Amy and David are disappointed by what they find, a rundown room without clean sheets or towels, dirty water, and nothing to watch on the television set except the VHS tapes the manager generously left for them.

David soon realizes that the videos aren’t low-budget slasher flicks, but snuff films made by the manager and his friends. Amy and David are next on their list. With the sadistic killers circling and video cameras set up everywhere, Amy and David are dead unless they can find a phone and get help.

Vacancy follows the seemingly inexhaustible subset of American and European horror flicks that pit stranded motorists without survival skills against vicious backwoods killers (some are inbred, some are disfigured, some are both inbred and disfigured). More often than not, the killers also have a taste for human flesh (e.g.Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Then again, there’s always Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which pushed voyeurism and audience complicity with onscreen violence to the fore. All of them, including Antal’s Vacancy, take advantage of several overlapping fears that also happen to be universal, e.g. fear of strangers, fear of strange places, being cut off from contact with the outside world (no phones, radio, or television), and becoming an anonymous, random statistic in a police database.

Genre history aside, Vacancy works as well as it does because it delivers a sustained level of dread and terror that leads to a (mostly) satisfying payoff. Moviegoers with a taste for the horror genre will find plenty of tension, suspense, and jolts to get them through Vacancy’s brief, 80-minute running time, thanks to Antal’s elegantly straightforward direction and taut control of the pacing.

That’s not all that Vacancy has going for it, though. Mark L. Smith’s screenplay avoids the usual slasher clichés (e.g. the unstoppable killer who keeps coming back for more, surprise killers, and twist endings that set up the inevitable sequel), instead opting for a degree of realism usually missing from the slasher sub-genre.

Setting aside slasher clichés has its drawbacks too, though, since moviegoers go to slasher flicks to see variations on the slasher formula, up to and including ingenious "kills" (Vacancy is surprisingly bloodless) and the unstoppable killer or killers getting their grisly comeuppance only after they've returned from the dead three or four times.

That aside, Antal and Smith seemed to have lost their nerve in the final scenes, opting to cheat their way to an ending that doesn't pay off the way it should. Still, chances are you’ll leave Vacancy with one or two thoughts: "Never take shortcuts when the interstate is the safer, more prudent choice," and "Never trust squirrelly-looking men who favor stringy mustaches."

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars