by JAMES BRIGHAM
WE SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO TOM BODETT
In spite of what its advertising campaign might lead you to believe, Vacancy is definitely not another blood drenched float in the torture horror parade (the Saw franchise, Hostel, the upcoming Captivity). While still financially lucrative to Hollywood, I’m slowly beginning to find that genre vein nearly tapped dry of arresting possibilities. To those with a similar bent, behold the good news: Vacancy is a straight-up thriller whose mere premise is enough to shiver spines. In classic Hitchcockian fashion, the film mostly grips the imagination through shadowy implication in lieu of repulsing the senses with overt ultra-violence. As our heroes plow ahead through this dark exploration of urban legend, however, their plight evokes increasing frustration. Every rock-solid moment of good acting is eventually upended by a clichéd turn of events and Vacancy ultimately becomes a prime example of clever ideas being overextended.
Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson (in a rare dramatic role) play Amy and David Fox, a married couple whose relationship could be considered icy at best. The reason behind their cold glances and sideways insults slowly emerges over the course of Vacancy’s 80 minutes. It is to screenwriter Mark Smith’s credit that the origin of their trials is not spelled out immediately in a blazingly obvious fashion. The script is smart enough to let the audience speculate as to the nature of their sad state of affairs and then drop morsels of insight here and there. As a result, we get to see the two principal actors shine during scenes that might otherwise come across like trite precursors to the meat of the tale.
I was thoroughly impressed with how realistic Beckinsale and Wilson were in these purely character building moments of conversation while driving through backwater roads. The duo creates believability through subtlety and understatement. Their discussion, with all the quibbling over throwaway details (Was it a raccoon or a squirrel they almost hit?) and slow spoken delivery, is a reflection of innumerable actual arguments that are really about deeper, unresolved emotional trauma. On top of that, factor in how the claustrophobic confines of an automobile become all the more apparent after hours of travel under these conditions. Then, when all you want to do is arrive at your destination, the last thing most folks want to hear from a significant other (who’s already likely become irksome) is that you’re lost or that the car’s having mechanical trouble. Lo, both fates befall the Foxes.
Perhaps that is why they’re so thankful for the presence of a nearby motel with plenty of room available. Desperate for a moment’s peace and eager to temporarily leave the roads behind, the Foxes agree to spend the night in one of the creepiest looking dumps ever to grace the silver screen: it comes complete with outdated 70’s décor, ominous neon hisses, and a slimy, bespectacled Steve Buscemi wannabe (Frank Whaley) working the front desk.
As the innkeeper, Mason, Whaley has a difficult role to play here. Mason’s behavior by itself is absorbingly odd enough to be called merely eccentric, but he’s already effectively been designated the villain in Vacancy by the film’s trailers and commercials. Couple this poor marketing decision with the misfire of having perverse sounds of horror blasting from the room behind him during his introduction to the Foxes. Though the freakish fare disturbs the couple, their reaction is not nearly as authentic as it could have been if even a passing nod to reality had been attempted. Mason mutters something off-hand about it “being lonely here at night,” presumably implying he enjoys watching pornography. If that’s the case, it’s some of the most demented material available. The script could have had him claim to be watching a scary movie himself or not had the TV’s volume in the background be an issue at all. Why cast suspicion on Mason so quickly? In any case, tons of potential suspense is sapped from the proceedings; ironically this occurs right when Vacancy’s hook should be reeling the audience in.
The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse goes a long way towards repairing the lost opportunity described above. Amy and David go from annoyance and confusion to horror and desperation in rapid order as their grimy motel room reveals a cornucopia of lurid secrets. Fate has dealt them a deadly hand, as the down-and-out couple find themselves trapped in a snuff film spider’s web – not merely the victims of highway robbery nor a senseless slasher. The sick implication of higher profits being made from particularly terrified motel guests adds a real kick to the affair as the shadowy aggressors go about heightening the fear through feinted attacks and psychological torture. The edge of my seat got ample wear since I was never sure if the bad guys were heading in for the final assault or not.
The humanistic tendencies of these evil people made Vacancy’s life or death drama riveting. In a capitalistic society, it’s easy to imagine that anything could be potentially up for sale under the right conditions and that makes the film’s murderers and their actions believably disturbing in a way that Jigsaw and his ilk never can be. Secondly, humanistic drive also carries the potential for human error, as David soon learns. His determination to out think these killers and bring about their downfall is infectious, to both his wife and to those in the audience. Wilson’s quiet resolve and Beckinsale’s affirmations of commitment contrast amazingly well with their bickering from earlier in the picture and ended up drawing me deeper into the dilemma, pushing me to mentally cheer them on, and actually conjuring reflection on what things truly matter the most in life when the chips are down.
But again, the by-the-book nature of modern Hollywood screenwriting rears its ugly head to unnecessarily handicap an otherwise respectable film. In spite of Vacancy’s incredibly short duration, I still felt like events were being tossed into the mix in order to keep Amy and David away from the inevitable moments of resolution. Even though I had grown to care mightily for these characters, I didn’t appreciate how the plot trounced into the final third of the film and began blatantly setting up the players for the typical kinds of confrontations that any number of other movies have done before. Then, just when you think Vacancy has fully dived into formulaic moviemaking, it jumps back into the realm of fatalistic Euro-art film. It plays this game of thematic jump rope twice more in the last fifteen minutes.
I felt like I was watching a ping-pong match between the studio bigwigs and the creative forces: a game possibly spurred on by divisive test screening audiences. The dizzying effect was unwelcome in the face of the appealing and well-acted dynamic between Beckinsale and Wilson. In the end, Vacancy offers a promising pitch that does deliver several amenities to visitors, but your actual stay in the theater during its runtime will likely have you wondering if you couldn’t have found a better movie for your money – maybe one with a free continental breakfast.