American horror has been seriously short of new ideas in the past few years (longer than that, some might say), and while this taut thriller from Screen Gems might not break any new ground, it?s handled with such a pared-down, efficient style and enough panache to make it one of the best genre offerings from the U.S. in quite some time. And even more, it?s actually scary, an important ingredient missing from many recent films that choose to concentrate more on disturbing or grossing out the audience.
The story is high-concept simplicity itself: a bickering married couple on the verge of divorce (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) check into an isolated motel after their car breaks down on a remote road. The creepy desk clerk (Frank Whaley, perfectly channeling his inner Norman Bates) directs them to the ?honeymoon suite,? a filthy, roach-infested room decorated in tacky, late 1960s style. As if that wasn?t bad enough, they?re immediately disturbed by loud banging on their doors and walls, though they can?t determine the source. Soon after, they play some videocassettes sitting on the in-room VCR, only to discover that they?re actually snuff movies shot in the very room they?ve checked into! Quickly realizing that they?re in immediate danger, the couple must improvise a way to escape, but the cards seem to be stacked in favor of the killers: the room has been rigged with cameras and secret entrances, and the couple finds themselves completely alone and in serious danger of not surviving the night.
Written by first-time screenplay author Mark L. Smith and directed by Nimrod Antal, previously responsible for the terrific Hungarian genre hybrid Kontroll (which had a low-profile DVD debut last year, and is worth seeking out), Vacancy happily manages to avoid nearly all the traps of cliché and genre familiarity that have plagued most studio horror films lately. In addition, its few missteps are easily overlooked since the tight pacing keeps viewers hooked throughout the brisk running time (only 80 minutes). Opening with one of the best credit sequences created since Saul Bass passed away, the opening act introduces viewers to the couple in such a way that you get to know them without getting into too much backstory. A dead child is hinted at, as are the details of the trip they?re returning from, but none of this feels as weighty as the typically overwritten background material most bloated American films feel the need to include. The simple bickering between the two provides enough details for the situation ? these are people who know each other well enough to find the really sensitive emotional targets, and hit them with precision. The bickering also serves to create tension from the start so that by the time the actual horror film plot kicks in, the audience is already on edge.
Everything in the film has a sinister feel, helped to a great degree by Antal?s previous experience in camera work. The opening scene ? basically one of two people having a conversation in a moving car ? is shot with unexpected innovation, particularly some interesting shots taken from the side-view mirrors of the moving vehicle. Everything about the movie is stripped down to the essentials: the cast is basically limited to three main characters, and their interaction takes place over the limited space of the motel and its grounds. Even when the characters descend to a network of escape tunnels underneath the area, it doesn?t feel like a convenient plot device, bur rather a logical way to open up the geography a bit. In many ways, the first half of the film is similar to the recent French horror movie Ils (aka Them review here), which also featured a married couple under attack by anonymous invaders. But unlike that film, Vacancy?s plot treads a much more logical path and, once you find out the details of the situation, the film actually gets better, unlike Ils.
Smith?s screenplay is also a great asset, and it will be interesting to see what his next project is. Unlike many other films, the backstory of the troubled couple actually drives the dynamic of the story and doesn?t feel like a tacked-on element meant to make the closing curtain resolution feel better. He also manages to make the couple?s behavior and survival choices smart and logical in most cases, also a rarity in such ?what would I do? horror films. (Alas, one of the best attributes of the script, however ? the surprise reveal that the couple are actually in a snuff film ? is necessarily given away in the trailers and TV commercials.) Although there?s plenty of ?snuff? footage on hand, the images are surprisingly light on blood, though that doesn?t reduce their disturbing effect.
Only in the third act ? which feels to a great degree like the result of a post-test screening reshoot ? does the film get seriously gory and begin to include some out-of-place cruelty and torture imagery. Since all of the film?s previous tension and terror was generated more by suspense and the mystery of not knowing exactly what was happening to the characters, this turn into explicit horror feels cheap and manipulative. And without giving too much away, one character?s fate that seemed sealed before the climactic sequence began, winds up doing an about-face at the very end, a surprising development that lessens the overall impact of the movie. But nevertheless, these minor problems shouldn?t dissuade horror fans from checking out this great, nerve-jangling thriller. Especially if it?s seen in a crowded theater on a Friday or Saturday night, Vacancy should be one hell of a rollercoaster ride of a movie, and one that you won?t hate yourself for liking after it?s over.