Thursday, August 23, 2007


Director: Nimrod Antal
Starring: Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry

Running Time: 80 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

If I'm ever overcome with the sudden urge to write a horror thriller one of the first people I'm calling for advice is Mark L. Smith, the screenwriter of Vacancy. The film may not be completely perfect, but it's damn close and one of the more intelligent thrillers to come along in recent years. You can try to look for holes in the screenplay, but good luck. There isn't a single moment or action by any character in this film that rings false. No one here makes any choices that are illogical or that any of you wouldn't make if put in the same situation. Or at least you should hope you'd have the wherewithal to make the choices the characters do here, because they're smart ones. If anything resembling the events in this film were to really occur I'm convinced this is how they would happen and I'm not too sure something exactly like this hasn't. It's so frighteningly realistic it could easily be based on a true story.

A quote on the DVD jacket promises a cross between Saw and Psycho and that's pretty much what you get, with the catch being it doesn't contain the gore of the former or psychological depth of the latter. If it had a little bit more of both this would have really been something special. It also contains two memorably evil supporting turns from a couple 90's actors I was thrilled to see again, and even more thrilled to see in roles where they're clearly having a blast. One of which plays a caretaker that may be the creepiest I've seen onscreen since Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock's masterpiece. He at least has Vince Vaughn beat, that's for sure. At a trim, but effectively tight 80 minutes, Vacancy is a huge surprise.

After what may be the coolest opening title sequence of the year, we join David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) as David takes a short cut off the interstate on their way to file the divorce papers that will end their headache of a marriage. Their constant bickering is interrupted when he swerves to avoid hitting a raccoon and damages the car. They stop at the local run-down gas station where they meet an eccentric, high-strung mechanic (Ethan Embry) who offers to fix the problem free of charge. He's unsuccessful and the couple is forced to stay at a fleabag motel run by a very, very creepy manager (Frank Whaley) who isn't what he seems. Or more accurately, he is exactly what he seems. What happens when they first settle in this old, dirty, cockroach infested "honeymoon suite" initially resembles the John Cusack PG-13 horror thriller from earlier in the year, 1408. The phone rings. There are loud, banging noises. The tension mounts. I honestly thought we were in for another stupid ghost story. Boy, was I wrong.

Soon David makes a discovery. It's a stack of videotapes on top of the VCR and what's on them are graphic, disturbing snuff films. Snuff films that were shot in the very same room they're staying in. You're probably having bad flashbacks to Joel Schumacher's 8mm, but let me ease those worries now and tell you these snuff films not only look real, they're genuinely scary and difficult to watch. There's a special feature on the DVD that allows you to watch them in their entirety, but I had to shut it off. I'm not sure if this was because I was scared or that I felt guilty watching it. There's so well done there's actually a sense that the viewer is being implicated by just seeing it unfold. I won't dare spoil what happens after David makes this discovery but the film impressively picks up like a speeding train and director Nimrod Antal with cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction) create an unbelievable sense of deepening terror. This is a beautifully shot film with impressive establishing, and later, hand-held camera shots that take place mostly inside this claustrophobic hotel room. Credit should go to everyone involved for being able to keep the story in the room for that long and in a way that's continually exciting and makes sense.

After nearly sucking us of oxygen with all the tension, the bad guys, when they do show up, actually meet expectations. They're scary as hell and Antal doesn't make the mistake of overexposing them. Just when you expect the film to veer off into slasher territory, it instead reveals itself as a suspenseful story about two smart people put in a realistic situation they must find their way out of. When the action eventually does leave the hotel room it does so because the characters made reasonable decisions and problem-solved. I rolled my eyes when a cop showed up late in the film. Except this isn't your ordinary movie cop. He's actually smart! He surveys the situation, asks all the right questions and does exactly what any real law enforcement official would really do. If he fails it's because he's outmatched, not stupid. A lot of people will watch this and think the villains are fools, but that's where the brilliant twist comes in that most critics and audiences missed. They're making a snuff film so it benefits them to keep the two of them alive as long as possible. They want more material. The killers are directing a movie.

I nearly cringed at the beginning of the film when we're introduced to the information that David and Amy had a son who passed away. Luckily though, this information is brought up, then promptly dropped. They don't continually dwell on it like in 1408. It seems every other horror film released these days feel the need to tack on a dead child in script rewrites to earn sympathy points for the main character. Here, it's at least mentioned briefly as subtext and left for us to ponder the rest of the way. It's no secret this is an experience meant to bring this couple closer and Smith shows us, without ever saying it, which is greatly appreciated by me. Luke Wilson is generally thought of as a charisma deficient actor but here he really delivers the dramatic goods in a big way. His back must have been hurting after the shoot from carrying the bland as usual Beckinsale through this entire film. For once she lucks out being in a horror movie where she can just scream and coast through. While she fares just fine for what she's asked to do, the film may have been improved slightly by a more exciting actress who could have brought more depth to the role.

It took me a second to identify the creepy motel manager as a far thinner and mustachioed Frank Whaley, infamous for his role over a decade ago as the underling to Kevin Spacey's boss from hell in 1995's Swimming With Sharks. When I realized who it was I could barely contain my excitement because I knew he was going to go all out, and does he ever. He gives the kind of performance that gives Jon Voight's hilariously over-the-top work in Anaconda a run for its money in entertainment value. Yes, he's that kind of villain. He knows what he there to do and chews into every scene like a madman. It's a deliriously fun supporting performance from a great actor who we don't usually get the chance to see nearly enough of. Another actor we haven't seen nearly enough of, Ethan Embry (star of 90's teen cult classics Empire Records and Can't Hardly Wait), makes the most of his limited screen time as the maniacal mechanic. His role actually ends up being more significant than you'd think at first glance.

It's rare in a horror movie that I actually find myself doubting whether both characters will actually make it out alive. Here I did. There is actually real, legitimate doubt whether they'll survive. When the ending does come, it's perfect. Any more would have told us too much and any less wouldn't have been enough. In a way it's a throwback to horror films of the 70's that didn't feel obligated tie the ending up in a nice little bow. It also strangely reminded me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original, not the remake) with a night of hell coming down to a face off at sunrise. If you're going to invoke the feeling of a horror film, that one definitely isn't a bad choice. From the retro opening credits to the emphasis on suspense over gore Vacancy harkens back to a better time in the horror genre.

Despite what the trailers and commericials suggested, it has more in common with The Descent than The Hills Have Eyes or Dead Silence. Ironically, though, the one thing the film could have used a little more of was gore and blood. I have no idea why it's even rated R. It doesn't contain enough violence and blood to satisfy hungry horror fanatics, but isn't quite tame enough to earn a PG-13 and be classified in the same category as the slightly inferior 1408, which was a box office success. This confusion could likely explain why audiences stayed away in droves.

I wouldn't have added more scenes of graphic violence (that would negate the suspense), but what they had could have easily been ratcheted up a notch. As frightening as the snuff films were, if they went even just a little more over the line with what was shown it could have made a big difference. This is a very rare case where showing more could have benefited a horror film and taken it to the next level. Part of me also wondered what a Brian DePalma or David Fincher would have done with the material and what psychological complexities they could have drawn out of it. It seems right up their alley. But that's no slight on Nimrod Antal, making his English feature debut after directing the acclaimed Hungarian film Kontroll, and whose first name is no way suggests his competence as a filmmaker. Vacancy is one of those rare movies that actually give horror a good name, providing some hope that it's possible for modern day films to be both smart and scary.

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