On its surface, Vacancy is Psycho for Asian-infused, reality-show obsessed Hostel era. Cute, young couple David and Amy Fox (played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale who do the “grundge chic” very well) are stranded with car trouble in the middle of the night near a desolate, creepy-looking hotel ran by the very creepy-looking Frank Whaley. The innkeeper is no Norman Bates (his character’s name escapes me save for IMDb….ah: Mason was his name!) and Whaley – while nice to see doing something other than off-Broadway – is certainly no Anthony Perkins. (It’s not his fault entirely; more on the screenplay in the next paragraph.) Thanks to some old VHS tapes lying atop the television, they soon learn that their room is nothing more than a set for an endless snuff film where those who check in, including themselves, become the unwilling cast members. Surrounded by cameras and maniacally-masked murderers, they try to find a way to escape.
Initially, I was turned off by the concept: It’s kind of like Hitchcock… except not as much time and effort was put into the characters by screenwriter Mark L. Smith. Surely, there must be some points given for the initial twenty minutes that offers Wilson and Beckinsale a chance to bitch at one another as some sort of subconscious precursor for the real turmoil of the film’s second and third act. Basically, the attacks they suffer at the hands of their tormentors are nothing more than an extension of their marital discontent. But, based on the bare-boned minimalism of the dialogue and little nuggets of background like a son presumed dead from an unnamed accident, the film is close with no cigar in the category of dramatic “oomph”. Early on, we can predict which incidentals will be labeled “False Savior” or “Law Enforcement Figure who Always ‘Eats It’ in These Types of Movies”. We certainly know nothing about the killers or their motives, other than filming their exploits for profit and/or self-gratification.
With little to no insight into the situation and the sheer helplessness of the Fox’s at the beginning of their stay at the creepy hotel, I was quick to label Vacancy as another in the line of the post-9/11 “victim porn”. You know, the type of movie where “helpless, pathetic innocents” are plagued into a horror they cannot understand or process. This political subtext to this decade’s most popular horror films will be mocked and riffed upon for years if there’s any justice: What’s the fun in a horror film in watching those who cannot fight just get slaughtered? Thankfully, we steer clear of this and figure out that the Fox’s are not going to take things lying down. Or chained up. Or harnessed or whatever the filmmakers want to concoct in their sick head. No, director Nimrod Antal (has a film director had a funnier name since Wes Craven) seems focused on the attitude and atmosphere of his film. Much attention and detail have been put into making this setting of Vacancy as creepy and unsettling as possible. Every room of the hotel, from the honeymoon suite to the manager’s office, seems to creep with endless amounts of detail. The whole look of the film is very “worn-in”, and thus a believably plausible place to be stuck with seemingly no way out. Plus, Antal has also put some time and thought into the “snuff films” left for the viewing of hotel guests/future victims. They are messy and chaotic and awkward. Kind of like how you would expect something of this nature to look. Unsettling indeed. The editing and cinematography (the cameras are ran by former Tarantino collaborator Andrzej Sekula and his retro classic feel sticks with the narrative) also work to maximum effect. As I alluded above, it’s also nice to see Wilson and Beckinsale back in cheap, weird little movies. They don’t come back very often in the past ten years since they found their place in flicks like Bottle Rocket and Cold Comfort Farm, but it’s nice to see them in the low-budget prism again.
Can a film run on technique and mood alone? Vacancy comes darn near close.