Vacancy. 2007. Directed by Nimród Antal. Screenplay by Mark L. Smith.
Starring Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, & Scott Anderson. Screen Gems/Hal Lieberman Company.
Rated 14A. 85 minutes.
Some of the most effective horror movies go after basic fears. Certain films like Jaws prey on the general fear of something as simple as deep water, and what lies beneath; Spielberg used that to turn that story into a cinematic exercise in gruesome dread. Then there’s the supernatural horror sub-genre, which goes after everything from religious faith to the irrational though emotionally tangible torment of ghosts/demons/whatever. Horrific thrillers such as the amazing When A Stranger Calls and recently the creepy though uneven Emelie go for the jugular of everyday societal concerns, like worrying about the people with whom you’ve charged babysitting your children.
The 2007 horror-thriller Vacancy is effective to me because I’ve always found staying in a motel unnerving, even a hotel for that matter. Because first off, you’re sleeping where somebody else, many other somebodies of whom you’ve got no idea where they’ve been or what they’ve done, has also slept. Doesn’t matter how many times they change those sheets, things linger. And I’m not just talking about the nasty fluids people spill in hotels and motels all over the world. Not talking about ghosts either, but sometimes an unsettling atmosphere can permeate a place without being supernatural. Just the spectre of bad things, a scary history can make a place worrisome. Secondly, anybody working at a motel can walk right inside your room, at any given moment. Even someone who doesn’t necessarily have clearance to be messing around with room keys can still get their hands on one, if they work there. So the prospect of being in a room where any number of people potentially also have the key, not just you like it is at home, can itself be crushing.
Vacancy doesn’t always deliver. What it does is keep things eerie, uncertain, and tries its best to follow in the vein of the slasher sub-genre. And despite the mistakes, this is a fun little flick. It will suck you in if you’ve ever let those thoughts about motels creep into your brain, wondering if anything bad could happen in one of those places.
Well, bad things do happen. And Vacancy wants to show you some of them.
One thing I do admire about Mark L. Smith’s screenplay (same guy who mind bogglingly wrote The Revenant) is that instead of lumping a couple of standard victims into the mix, he opts to have the main protagonists be a divorcing married couple. Not like it’s reinventing the wheel of slasher horror, they aren’t the first couple of their type in a movie of this sort. But it makes for good tension between the two characters. Starting off, their whole time together is simply aggravating. You can feel the tension so quickly and without being force fed that the relationship between Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale feels pretty natural. Immediately their chemistry works, you get the sense this is a marriage deteriorating rapidly, on its way to smouldering ashes. And y’know, there’s some decent emotional resonance. The nearly divorced couple finds legitimate perspective on their marriage, the apparent loss of a child. Who wouldn’t when psychotic killers and a sinister motel owner are trying to put you in a snuff film? Sure, it’s a tad heavy handed. Not so much that it’s overwhelming, and that’s a forgiveable sin in my books.Plus, aside from the tension between characters director Nimród Antal does a decent job drawing out the suspense and terror of Smith’s writing. At times it is most certainly cliche, and you’ll probably roll your eyes once and awhile. But there are genuinely scary horror moments, as well as a couple nasty slasher stabbings and, well… slashing. What I enjoy about Antal’s directorial choices are that he makes this (mostly)one-location thriller into an exciting, at times unpredictable horrorshow. In a space like the motel, with its parking lot and small row of rooms, there could easily be some boring, stagnant moments. For all its flaws, Vacancy is at least an exciting thrill ride for the majority of its swift 85 minutes. Antal and Smith craft their terror out of the claustrophobia of the solitary setting, as well as the aforementioned fears of motel living. Together, this is a nice recipe for slasher territory to be cooking with.
A nice addition to this sub-genre flick is Frank Whaley, a vastly overlooked actor that’s been in tons of stuff yet just doesn’t get talked about enough. He’s a solid character actor that I’ve enjoyed in a bunch of stuff (The Doors, Ray Donovan, his directorial debut Joe the King). Here he’s a super creeper and injects an old timey Hollywood feel of horror with his character, while also being a sort of contemporary guy with his snuff film business out the back door of the motel.
There isn’t anything new in Vacancy. Sometimes there’s an over reliance on jump scares, which don’t effectively get me going personally. Only starts to piss me off eventually once there’s not enough genuine scares Although, its advantages lie in a decent screenplay, one that does well with a lonesome motel setting. Additionally, you’ve got Frank Whaley in a macabre role, alongside the decent pairing of Beckinsale and Wilson.
I can give this one 3&1/2-stars without feeling bad either way. It’s entertaining. There are actually a few good scares, including a bit of blood and nastiness, some fun editing and just as fun camera work. Chilling enough, you could do a lot worse for a popcorn horror flick on a rainy night.