Kate Beckinsale as Amy Fox
Luke Wilson as David Fox
Frank Whaley as Mason
Ethan Embry as Mechanic
Scott G. Anderson as Killer
Mark Casella as Truck Driver
David Doty as Highway Patrol
Directed by Nimród Antal
Playing off horror movies clichés from the '60s, '70s and '80s, what "Vacancy" lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in pure and unadulterated scares.
Screen Gems and every director they've hired who's made a bad horror film needs to line-up right now and kiss Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez on the lips for reviving the term "grindhouse" as a euphemism for any poorly-made schlock horror film. Fortunately, they can wait to do that until after "Vacancy," because the English debut of Hungary's Nimród Antal ("Kontroll") while clearly influenced by the same B-horror movies as "Grind House," is also an extremely scary movie, one that quickly makes you forgive any faults in the writing and weaker than usual performances by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale.
Wilson and Beckinsale play David and Amy Fox, a married couple who are mere days away from divorce and wind up on one last road trip together. When he decides to leave the highway, gets lost in the back roads of a desolate area and their car breaks down, they're forced to check into the seedy Pinewood Motel. Once they settle into their dingy room, they're rattled by a noisy neighbor who keeps banging on their doors, and they soon discover that they're the latest victims of a snuff film ring, masterminded by the creepy caretaker, who has men in masks torment and torture their unwitting hotel guests on camera before killing them.
While "Vacancy" starts out a bit like "Psycho" complete with Hermannesque music and hypnotic opening credits, it's a bit of a ruse, setting up for the Foxes to check into the Pinewood, where the movie quickly turns into something in between "Halloween" and "Motel Hell" as they're terrorized by burly guys in masks in preparation for their snuff film debut. It's not that often these days that people make horror movies as simple as this one, taking place mostly in one location with less than five main characters--not including the many snuff film victims we see terrorized on tape. It's fairly obvious that this wasn't the kind of idea that took more than an afternoon to flesh out into a script. In that sense, it's very much like an '80s B-horror movie of the "Don't Go in the Basement" variety, where the protagonists do every stupid thing that any person whose ever seen a horror film would know better than to do. Most of the scares are fairly primitive and primal, playing up to our overt fears as well as those hidden in our subconscious, and it's very effective at keeping the viewer on edge, whether by the banging of doors and walls or watching the duo crawl through a tunnel filled with rats. Even the video tape of the motel's victims, cut to at random times, is so jarring and disturbing that it puts the viewer into a similar confused state as the movie's victims. If you go into the movie not knowing the premise, you're likely to be even more shocked by the sudden tone shift, when it becomes all about the action and scares.
One has to wonder how name actors like Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale were convinced to take on the type of slasher fodder roles that usually go to unknown younger actors, but it's certainly a change of pace if not an odd career decision. Both actors can be very likable in the right vehicle, though they seem to be holding back and limited their range, possibly to add to the B-movie flavor. It's certainly a different thing for them, although the attempts at building their characters with a backstory involving a dead child tends to fall flat when shoehorned into all of the terror. It's also hard to watch the beautiful Beckinsale getting battered around compared to the usual unknown bimbos who usually get that honor. On the other hand, Frank Whaley--he played the put-upon production assistant in "Swimming with Sharks"--has never been better than as the motel owner and snuff film mogul, channeling a bit of Norman Bates but giving it his own funny and later menacing twist.
The good thing is that the movie is so fast-paced, rarely letting up once things get going, that one doesn't have time to fault it for obvious gaffs like the method used by the bad guys to get in and out of the couple's locked hotel room so effortlessly or the logic behind leaving tapes of previous victims in their room. (Maybe done to throw more fear into the victims?)
After putting the viewer through such a thrill ride, the ending is disappointingly abrupt, leaving things like the fate of the protagonists unresolved. It's also hard to decide whether the lack of the "bad guy isn't quite dead yet" cliché is a good or a bad thing, especially since the movie so effortlessly played up so many other horror movie cliches. But who knows? Maybe that's a matter of leaving things open for "Vacancy 2" and beyond, that is, if something like this could ever possibly happen twice.
The Bottom Line:
While "Vacancy" isn't the type of horror movie where you necessarily need to have your brain or your taste for quality acting engaged in gear, if you're looking for real and constant scares then "Vacancy" is likely to disturb you in ways you might not even realize until the next time you check into an out-of-the-way motel.