Review: “Vacancy”

What starts out as a slick but generic urban legend meets slasher film turns into a surprisingly enjoyable thriller in “Vacancy.” The feature marks the American helming debut of Hungarian director Nimrod Antal, who scored acclaimed for his Budapest subway killer story “Kontroll,” and shows distinct promise here.

David (Luke Wilson) and Amy (Kate Beckinsale) are about to get divorced, but when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are forced to spend the night at the only motel around, with only the TV to entertain them. They soon discover that the low-budget snuff films on video tapes next to the TV set were all filmed in the very room they’re sitting in. With hidden cameras now aimed at them, filming their every move, they begin an intense fight to get away before they become the stars of the next tape.

The film works for the most part because it keeps things lean and bare bones, and allows Antal to really build some effective suspense and atmosphere – not letting post-modern satire or gore-oriented FX trickery in the narrative to undermine the tension of the situation. He’s very ably helped by cinematographer Andrzej Sekula who laces everything in an oppressive darkness, masterfully milking the sense of the unknown and believable threats lingering in room corners or hovering outside.

Also helping is that there’s really only three characters (our two leads and the hotel manager), the rest being either cameos or masked silent figures of death. 90% of the action is confined to the oppressiveness of a rundown motel and its environs (which admittedly include a snazzy tunnel system). Refreshingly scant and bloodless moments of violence are short but believably brutal, and thankfully outnumbered by clever setups and sound effects.

Even its compact 80 minute runtime ensures a healthy paced narrative which doesn’t overstay its welcome, although admittedly does venture into a somewhat generic and clumsy ending. Whilst the denounment may sadly steer into well-charted waters, it’s refreshing that much of the preamble actually works as a clever and quite subtle satire of films of this type – most notably the central premise of violence for entertainment. In effect, much of the film lambasts the very audience it has been crafted for – a rather bold move in a genre known for lack on ingenuity.

Where “Vacancy” falls down is its plausibility factor. Like it or not it still pays heed to many of the genre’s cliches – masked slasher movie killers, out-of-range cell phones, a creepy person in authority who’s obviously up to no good, and a couple who admittedly are a little too stupid for their own good. It’s a silly scenario which has no credibility, but if you can go with it you’ll be impressed with its consistency.

Wilson and Beckinsale, whilst not convincing as a couple, fit well with the material. His everyday easy appeal makes him an easy to support lead, whilst Beckinsale drops the action chick mold in favour of an assertive but still quite scared victim – giving us a glimpse of vulnerability we rarely get to see from her. Frank Whaley though steals the show as the creepy hotel clerk, just eccentric enough to be believable, without going off into bad Norman Bates mimic territory.

It’s not original or fresh enough to really recommend, nevertheless “Vacancy” does breathe with a refreshingly vintage and smart take on horror – a harkening back to a period when films relied more on suspense and simple premises than sadism and satire. An excellent film for a midnight movie DVD marathon.