Director: Nimród Antal
There are some questions that humankind just may never truly know the answers to. What is the meaning of life? Does God really exist? What purpose do the plastic caps on the tips of shoelaces serve? And perhaps most importantly, how do those cheap roadside motels stay in business? We've all seen them, those sleazy, flophouse lodges that look so deserted that you'd be surprised if there were anybody there besides the poor fool stuck working the front desk. Apparently, someone in Hollywood thinks they might be doing something to supplement their income. You would think that drugs would be the most obvious answer, but what if it were something much more sinister? That's the basic plot of Vacancy, a horror movie that's better than you'd expect, given its simple plot and very modest gross at the box office. So let's get started with the review, shall we?
Bickering couple David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are traveling the back roads of America when their car breaks down. Stranded in the middle of nowhere and in need of a place to spend the night, David and Amy are forced to hike more than a mile to a lonely motel isolated from the rest of the world. The desk clerk on duty, a creepy little weasel named Mason (Frank Whaley), insists on putting them up in the "honeymoon suite," going as far as to offer them a discounted rate on the room. The Foxes take him up on the offer, only to learn that their room is one of the most disgusting places on the face of the planet.
But because this is a horror movie, it's safe to assume that a filthy motel room will be the least of their worries. David starts going through the stack of unlabelled VHS tapes left in the room, finding not the pornography he was hoping for, but instead what initially appears to be homemade slasher movies. But after David and Amy realize that the movies were filmed in the very same room they've checked into, the ugly truth hits them: the tapes feature recordings of legitimate murders. That's when they discover the video cameras hidden throughout the room, quickly realizing what that means for them. So unless they want to become the stars of the motel's next snuff film, they'll have to find a way to escape the killers who are watching their every move.
Vacancy is an incredibly simplistic movie. It takes place in one small location, with only a tiny handful of characters to push things forward. That's the beauty of it, because Vacancy never tries to be anything more than what it is at its core. It doesn't utilize cheap "boo!" scares or gallons of blood and guts like a lot of horror movies nowadays, but instead seeks to frighten those who watch it by using old-school concepts like atmosphere and suspense. Such an approach sets Vacancy apart from other horror movies, and frankly, it's a better movie because of it.
A lot of that is thanks to director Nimród Antal. The movie has little plot or character development, which ultimately leads to a super-streamlined experience that allows Antal and veteran cinematographer Andrej Sekula to utilize every trick they can think of to scare the pants off their audience. The suspense builds and builds throughout the movie's surprisingly short running time, with Antal using Sekula's excitingly creepy camera angles and compositions to build a moody, claustrophobic atmosphere. The scene where unseen stalkers pound on the doors and walls of the motel room is some downright frightening stuff, for sure, and it's all thanks to the talents of Antal and Sekula. Of course, nearly every good horror movie uses music to further hammer home the frights, and Vacancy is no exception. Composer Paul Haslinger's understated music helps to contribute a constant feeling of dread in addition to the already eerie visuals.
I said in the previous paragraph that the movie is light on plot, character development, all that stuff. And that's true, as the script penned by Mark L. Smith has precious little of those things. But to make up for that, Smith gets us into the action quickly and doesn't let up until the end. The lead characters check into the hotel within the first fifteen minutes, and by the end of the movie's initial half-hour, all hell breaks loose. From there, it's frightening scene after frightening scene. And though Smith has to resort to a few clichés, like masked killers and unresponsive cell phones, he doesn't fall into any of the horror genre's traps. The script offers very few predictable moments, never letting on just who will live and who will die. Nearly every moment is a surprise, which makes them all the more scary. Even the movie's off-putting abrupt ending works, because even though an epilogue would be accepted, we the viewer can live without it.
And let's not forget the cast, which is quite small. The two lead characters are by themselves for much of the movie, and both of their actors are up to task. Luke Wilson comes across as a likeable jerk for the early part of the movie, before he steps up as the take-charge kind of guy you'd expect to see in a horror movie. He does a fine job in the role, though I must admit that I'm not used to seeing him in anything that isn't a comedy. The other half of the movie's equation, Kate Beckinsale, also puts forth a good performance. Word is that Beckinsale was cast as a replacement for Sarah Jessica Parker, who was originally cast as the movie's female lead. That's a replacement I can get behind, because not only is Beckinsale easier on the eyes than Parker, but she's a better actress than Parker as well. Anyway, Beckinsale's character is kind of a bitch for a good portion of the movie, but she is still very good in the role. Even at her bitchiest, she still makes you care about the character. And even if you don't care for her in the movie, it'd still be fun to cheer for the killers. Watching movies like this and cheering for the killers is part of the fun, right?
Speaking of killers, Frank Whaley's part is a relatively modest one when compared to Wilson and Beckinsale's, but his work here is one of the creepiest horror movie performances in a while. He's downright unsettling when he really gets going, giving off the impression that he'd be what would happen if Ned Flanders from The Simpsons went absolutely insane. And though he's stuck in an incredibly thankless role, Ethan Embry is spooky as a mechanic the lead characters encounter at the beginning of the movie. Though he makes a more menacing contribution to the movie by the end of it, he only has one scene in which he gets to do any actual acting, making his role a glorified cameo more than anything else.
Vacancy clocks in at a brisk 85 minutes, allowing it to get in, have its way with the place, and make a run for it before wearing out its welcome. But it's such a tense, fast-paced experience, you almost don't want it to end. It's suspenseful and scary from start to finish, something quite a few horror movies nowadays can't say they are. It's a real downer that Vacancy didn't make more of a splash at the box office, because movies like this only come along once in a blue moon. That's why I have no problem giving this flick four stars on the patent-pending Five Star Sutton Scale. Vacancy's Pinewood Motel might not be the grand successor to the Bates Motel, but I'm sure it will work in a pinch.
Final Rating: ****